MAC: Mines and Communities

Bush burns and wastes - right up to the wire

Published by MAC on 2008-12-09

As reported on our website early last month, George W Bush has been trying to rush-through legislation to boost US coal mining interests, before he has to quit

his sullied White House, and Obama takes up residence. See:

According to the New York Times, this is precisely what has now happened, with the result that "the coal industry could be the largest beneficiary of last-minute environmental rules."

Not only could it soon be legal for companies, like Massey Energy, to dump wastes from their "mountaintop removal" into streams and valleys. Power utilities will also be allowed to site coal-fired generating plants near national parks. Another rule - still being framed - would permit utilities to modify coal-fired power plants and increase their emissions without installing new pollution-control equipment.

In response, environmental groups have launched an on-line campaign, urging Obama to "undo" the mountain-top related legislation when he comes to power, while the Bank of America has announced it will "phase" out loans to the culprit companies.

Coal Mining Debris Rule Is Approved By ROBERT PEAR and FELICITY BARRINGER

New York Times

2nd December 2008

WASHINGTON - The White House on Tuesday approved a final rule that will make it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining operations into nearby streams and valleys.

The rule is one of the most contentious of all the regulations emerging from the White House in President Bush's last weeks in office.

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, confirmed in an interview that the rule had been approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget. That clears the way for publication in the Federal Register, the last stage in the rule-making process.

Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, concurred in the rule, first proposed nearly five years ago by the Interior Department, which regulates coal mining.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, dated Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said the rule had been revised to protect fish, wildlife and streams.

Mining activities must comply with water quality standards established by the federal government and the states, Mr. Johnson said.

But a coalition of environmental groups said the rule would accelerate "the destruction of mountains, forests and streams throughout Appalachia." Edward C. Hopkins, a policy analyst at the Sierra Club, said: "The E.P.A.'s own scientists have concluded that dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality. By signing off on this rule, the agency has abdicated its responsibility."

Mr. Bush has boasted of his efforts to cooperate with President-elect Barack Obama to ensure a smooth transition, but the administration is rushing to complete work on regulations to which Mr. Obama and his advisers object. The rules deal with air pollution, auto safety, abortion and workers' exposure to toxic chemicals, among other issues.

The National Mining Association, a trade group, welcomed the rule, saying it could end years of uncertainty that had put jobs and coal production in jeopardy.

The coal industry could be the largest beneficiary of last-minute environmental rules.

"This is unmistakably a fire sale of epic size for coal and the entire fossil fuel industry, with flagrant disregard for human health, the environment or the rule of law," said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to finish work on a rule that would make it easier for utilities to put coal-fired generating stations near national parks. It is working on another rule that would allow utility companies to modify coal-fired power plants and increase their emissions without installing new pollution-control equipment.

Joan M. Mulhern, a lawyer at Earthjustice, an environmental group, denounced the mining regulation.

"With less than two months left in power," Ms. Mulhern said, "the Bush administration is determined to cement its legacy as having the worst environmental record in history."

At issue, she said, is a type of mining in which "coal companies blast the tops off mountains to reach the seams of coal and then push the rubble into the adjacent valleys, burying miles of streams."

Administration officials rejected the criticism.

"This rule strengthens protections for streams," said Peter L. Mali, a spokesman for the Interior Department office that wrote the regulation. "Federal law allows coal mine waste to be placed in streams, and the rule tightens restrictions as to when, where and how those discharges can occur."

The rule gives coal companies a legal right to do what, in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances, with special permission from the government.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama expressed "serious concerns about the environmental implications" of mountaintop mining.

"We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains," Mr. Obama told one environmental group. At the same time, he proposed a major federal investment in clean coal technology.

Gov. Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky and Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, both Democrats, had urged the Bush administration not to approve the rule. Mr. Beshear said he feared that it would lead to an increase in pollution of "Kentucky's beautiful natural resources."

Several members of Congress also opposed the rule, including Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky.

In giving his blessing to the new regulation, Mr. Johnson, the head of the E.P.A., noted that Mr. Bush had promoted the use of clean coal technology as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"Americans should not have to choose between clean coal or effective environmental protection," Mr. Johnson said. "We can achieve both."

But environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council see the mountaintop mining rule and pending changes in air pollution regulations as part of a final effort by the Bush administration to cater to the needs of energy industries.

The proposal that would give more leeway to coal-burning power plants, to increase their emissions when they make repairs and renovations, was on the original wish list of the energy task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001.

In 2006, a federal appeals court struck down an effort by the Bush administration to loosen the rules on such coal-burning plants.

Environmentalists Fight E.P.A. Rule

The New York Times

4th December 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) Environmentalists began an online campaign Wednesday urging President-elect Barack Obama to undo a new federal rule that clarifies when coal companies can dump mining waste in streams.

The group Appalachian Voices, based in North Carolina, and others criticized the Environmental Protection Agency's decision on Tuesday to endorse the mining rule. They called it the death of freshwater streams and the probable start of a new surge in mountaintop removal surface mining across Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Although the regulation would apply nationwide, mountaintop removal operations are of special interest in Appalachia, where surface mines now outnumber those underground.

An E.P.A. study estimated that 400,000 acres of forest were cut and nearly 724 miles of streams buried from 1985 to 2001 by mountaintop mining, in which forests are clear cut and holes are drilled to blast apart rock. Massive machines scoop coal from the exposed seams. The rock and dirt left behind is dumped into adjacent valleys, covering streams.

Controversial mountaintop coal mining loans cut by banks - even as regulations eased

Bank of America is to phase out lending to Appalachia's mountaintop miners in a move likely to be followed by other financial institution, and which will be praised by environmental groups.


5th December 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - Bank of America Corp will sharply cut lending to coal mining companies that take the tops off mountains, following pressure from groups that call the practice an environmental hazard.

The move by the top U.S. bank represents a financial blow to the industry just as the Bush administration this week made it easier for coal companies to dump debris from mountaintop mining into nearby valleys and streams.

The coal industry dismissed the idea that Bank of America's action would mean major changes for its operations, but environmental groups foresee other banks considering their practices and mining companies scrambling for funds.

"I think it will send a shock wave through the coal industry, because they've been able to do this for a long time on the cheap," said National Resources Defense Council campaign director Robert Perks.

Coal is abundant in the United States but also a relatively dirty fuel that contributes to global warming, making it central to debates on energy independence and the environment. In the steep mountains of Appalachia, across Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, mountaintops are literally destroyed to expose coal.

The practice has become a target for environmentalists, who pushed Bank of America and other financial institutions to stop lending to companies involved in such mining.

"Bank of America is particularly concerned about surface mining conducted through mountain top removal in locations such as central Appalachia," the bank said in a recent statement on its website.

"We therefore will phase out financing of companies whose predominant method of extracting coal is through mountain top removal. While we acknowledge that surface mining is economically efficient and creates jobs, it can be conducted in a way that minimizes environmental impacts in certain geographies," the bank added.


Rainforest Action Network, a major critic of mountaintop removal, had targeted Bank of America and Citigroup Inc for their financing of coal energy, from extraction to power plants. Citigroup was not immediately available for comment.

The possibility of carbon taxes that would make coal more expensive to burn and a weak economy have helped shelve plans for many U.S. coal-run power plants, the network said.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said U.S. coal production, stoked by overseas demand, had been set to hit a record in 2008, before the economy soured. Mountaintop mining accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production.

He doubted the Bank of America move would seriously crimp the industry and argued that if it did, markets would be in turmoil and miners would suffer.

"It would be hard for me to believe the bank fully appreciates the employment that depends on mountaintop mining in Appalachia," he said.

The industry was pleased when the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday approved the repeal of a 1983 law that prohibited surface coal mining within 100 feet (30 metres) of flowing streams. The industry sees that cutting the risks of lawsuits by clarifying the process.

Massey Energy Co, International Coal Group, Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal Corp are among those with Appalachian surface mines. (Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

(c) Reuters 2008. All rights reserved.

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