MAC: Mines and Communities

Federal report calls for new regulation of mountaintop mining

Published by MAC on 2003-06-04

Communities impacted by both mountaintop and underground coal mininng will find little comfort in recent developments in the USA.

Federal report calls for new regulation of mountaintop mining

By Nancy Zuckerbrod, Associated Press

4th June 2003

Washington — A study examining how mountaintop coal mining is regulated says the government needs to better oversee the practice in which ridges are blasted away and rocks and dirt dumped in valleys and streams.

Environmentalists said they expected more from the report produced by five government agencies — four federal and one in West Virginia.

"It says nothing about protecting the environment and the communities nearby," said West Virginia environmental lawyer Joe Lovett.

Coal operators increasingly have relied on mountaintop removal because it is efficient. Opponents say this type of mining destroys the environment.

Several agencies regulate mountaintop mining, and the new study said they must do a better job sharing information and creating a common system for permit applications.

The industry-backed National Mining Association said in a statement that the report's key recommendation, improved coordination among those agencies, "can not only clarify permitting and mitigation requirements but also produce better environmental results."

Environmentalists also are upset the study did not call for a general limit on the size of valley fills, where dirt and rock are pushed into nearby stream beds.

"The studies show that limiting the size of valley fills is one of the most effective ways of reducing the environmental effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, especially on waters," said Joan Mulhern, senior attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm.

Mike Robinson, a program head at the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, said it would be more beneficial to the environment to look at valley fills on an individual basis when deciding whether to grant coal operators permits.

The report supports a Bush administration plan to finalize a rule addressing discrepancies between the Clean Water Act and surface mining regulations regarding the ability of coal companies to place valley fill in streams.

A surface mining regulation generally bans coal mining activities within 100 feet of streams, but such a rule is not outlined in the Clean Water Act.

"We need to be consistent with the Clean Water Act. We can't supersede it by saying something more stringent than the Clean Water Act," Robinson said.

Environmentalists say they do not want the buffer zone rule scratched.

The focus of the study involves about 12 million acres and 59,000 miles of streams in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee.

The study found that 1,200 miles of headwater steams, 2 percent of those in the study area, were directly impacted by mountaintop mining between 1992 and 2002. It also found an estimated 724 stream miles were covered from valley fills between 1985 and 2001.

The study was required as part of an out-of-court settlement of a 1999 federal lawsuit that challenged the way West Virginia permits and regulates mountaintop removal strip mines.

A West Virginia judge ruled twice in recent years that mountaintop mining violated environmental laws, but he was overturned both times.

Five agencies have been at work on the study since 1999: the Office of Surface Mining, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

The agencies that wrote the report are seeking public comment prior to issuing a final report.

Appeals Court Backs Interior's View of Mining Act

Environmental News Service (ENS)

June 4, 2003

Washington, DC - A federal appeals court upheld Tuesday a lower court ruling that surface damage from underground coal mining is not covered by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In the original 1999 case, Citizens Coal Council v. Gale Norton, the group questioned the Department of the Interior's interpretation that a section of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act does not apply to underground mining. The Citizens Coal Council argued that the statute should protect landowners against subsidence, the collapse of rock and soil layers on surfaces above underground mines. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the Citizens Coal Council.

In their ruling, the three judges of the appeals court admitted that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) is a "complex and often puzzling statute" that raises questions about interpretation. It was enacted by Congress to protect the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations and to strike a balance between environmental protection and coal supplies, they say.

"We find that the definition of 'surface coal mining operations' in SMCRA section 701(28) is ambiguous as to whether Congress intended it to include subsidence," the judges write. "We find the secretary's interpretation, while not necessarily the most natural one, is reasonable, and therefore we defer to it."

"This ruling safeguards the jobs of nearly 45,000 miners working in underground coal mines," said National Mining Association President and CEO Jack Gerard, "and of affordable, reliable electricity for millions of American homes and businesses that rely on coal based generation for their electricity."

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