Back in May, the EPA surprised a lot of people when they gave the greenlight to 42 out of the 48 permits for mountaintop-removal mining that were under review, saying that none of the approved projects "would permanently impact high-value streams that flow year-round." Many environmentalists have grumbled that the practice of blowing up mountains to get at the minerals underneath should be stopped altogether, and the move was a warning that the Obama administration might chicken out of its green agenda.

But yesterday’s announcement was a sign that a permanent change might well be in the works: The EPA just placed holds on 79 additional surface-mining permits under review—every single permit that had been submitted by March 31 of this year—for violating the Clean Water Act. Why the sudden about-face? As Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment told me, this latest batch of proposals were far more ecologically destructive than the projects approved in May. "It's really the first time in the last many years that the EPA has followed the law and the science on this issue," says Lovett. 

Though other permits for mountaintop-removal mining have been submitted in the intervening months—a spokesman for the National Mining Association put the number at about 250 pending—the fact that the EPA put the entire batch of permits under enhanced review is a sign they're not letting anything slip through the cracks any longer. A few mining projects might still get approval, but only with environmental safeguards tacked on.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups cheered the decision, although many still insist on nothing less than a full repeal of the Bush-era regulations that allowed surface mining in the first place. That would be a bold step, but one with little political repercussions elsewhere—the mining industry and coal-friendly politicians were already dead-set against cap-and-trade, for example. While the EPA has thus far been moving a little sluggishly as a number of officials have been waiting for confirmation, a real regulatory shift does appear to be on the horizon.