MAC: Mines and Communities

Bush to rewrite US coal rules, despite growing opposition

Published by MAC on 2008-10-27

Recent proposals, to "curb" the damaging impacts of mountain-top coal removal in the eastern US,
will actually give mining companies more freedom to despoil the environment, claim environmentalists.

U.S. moves toward new dumping rules for mining waste


18th October 2008

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials have moved closer to finalizing rules on the disposal of mining waste, a plan environmentalists said gives mountaintop mining companies more freedom to dump debris near rivers and streams.

The current rules were put in place in 1983 but needed to be clarified because of conflicting interpretations, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) said in a statement released on Friday.

The proposed changes, subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would require coal mining operations to avoid the area within 100 feet of a stream or "show why avoidance is not possible," OSM said.

Work within the 100-foot "stream buffer zone" would be prohibited unless the mining agency granted a waiver, or if the activity is exempt from the ban. Companies wanting to operate within the zone must minimize debris "to the extent possible," the agency said.

Mountaintop mining -- removing large mountaintop areas to expose coal -- is safer for miners than underground mining but environmental groups say it has devastated forests, rivers and streams.

The proposed waste disposal rules "will allow coal companies to dump massive waste piles ... directly into streams, permanently burying them," environmental group Earthjustice said in a statement. More than 2,000 miles (3,200km) of Appalachian streams already have been buried or degraded by mountaintop mining waste, the group said.

OSM, however, said the plan would be "slightly positive" for the environment because it requires coal mining companies to minimize certain impacts, such as the volume of rock and other debris disposed outside the mined area.

The Sierra Club urged the EPA to reject the plan, calling it "fatally flawed."

"It makes no effort to fairly examine alternatives and its only purpose is to expedite mining without regard to environmental damage," Ed Hopkins, Sierra Club director of environmental quality, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Trott)

More Sadness for Appalachia

Ediotrial, New York Times

20th October 2008

The Bush administration is writing one more sad chapter in the long, tortured history of Appalachia's coal-rich hills. Last week, the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining proposed a revision, amounting to a repeal, of one of the last regulatory protections against an environmentally ruinous mining practice called mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is just what the name suggests: enormous machines scrape away mountain ridges to expose the coal seams. The leftover rock and dirt are then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams. The practice has gone on for years. By one estimate, 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried this way and hundreds of square miles of forests damaged.

No recent administration, Democrat or Republican, has made a serious effort to end the dumping, largely in deference to the coal industry and the political influence of Robert Byrd, West Virginia's senior senator. But beginning in the late-1990s, concerned citizens tried to slow things by invoking the so-called stream buffer zone rule, which seeks to protect water quality by prohibiting any mining activity within 100 feet of flowing streams.

With the urging of the coal companies, the Bush administration started looking for creative ways to ensure that this destructive practice could continue. In 2002, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency found itself inconvenienced by a rule explicitly prohibiting the use of mining waste as "fill" in streams and wetlands for development and other purposes. So the administration simply rewrote the regulations.

The nettlesome buffer zone rule still remained in place, so in 2004 the administration began a systematic effort to weaken it as well. That culminated Friday when the Office of Surface Mining sent its proposal for gutting the rule to the E.P.A., whose concurrence is required.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said in the last month that they oppose mountaintop removal, which may explain the administration's mad dash to rewrite the rule before a more conservation-minded administration arrives in town. Their opposition also inspires slim hopes among environmentalists that Stephen Johnson, the E.P.A.'s administrator, would withhold his approval. That would be an enormous surprise, but also enormously welcome.

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