WASHINGTON — The Interior Department has advanced a proposal that would ease restrictions on dumping mountaintop mining waste near streams, though environmental groups will probably sue to block the change if the administration finalizes it, reports the Herald-Leader in its Saturday edition.
The department's Office of Surface Mining issued a final environmental impact analysis Friday on the proposed rule change, which has been under consideration for four years. It has been a top priority of the surface mining industry, the Herald Leader reports.
It sets the stage for a final regulation, one of the last major environmental initiatives of the Bush administration, after 30 days of additional public comment and interagency review.
The proposed rule would rewrite a regulation enacted in 1983 by the Reagan administration that bars mining companies from disposing of huge amounts of rock and dirt from surface mining within 100 feet of any intermittent or perennial stream if the disposal adversely affects water quality or quantity, the Herald-Leader.
The revisions would require mining companies to minimize the debris they dump as much as possible, but also let them dump inside the protective buffer zone if compliance is determined to be impossible.
"The new rule will allow coal companies to dump massive waste piles directly into streams, permanently burying them," warned Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice, among the environmental groups that have fought large-scale surface mining — including mountaintop removal — used in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Virginia and Tennessee, reports the Herald-Leader.
Mining companies remove vast mountaintop areas to expose layers of coal. Coal companies put much of the rock and dirt — called overburden or spoil — back onto mined areas during reclamation, but can't put back all the material.
The companies dump the excess spoil into valleys near the mine, creating valley fills that often bury stream areas, the newspaper reports.
Despite the 100-foot buffer requirement, hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or affected by valley fills.
There has been a great deal of conflict among environmentalists, the coal industry and regulators about what stream areas the rule covers. It has been routine for regulators to grant exemptions and let coal companies mine and dump spoil in areas that environmentalists argue should be off limits, reports the newspaper.
This proposed rule "legitimizes mountaintop removal and its most damaging effect, which is putting valley fill and sludge into streams," said Mulhern.
However, the Office of Surface Mining maintains that the 1983 rule "has never been applied as an absolute prohibition of mining activities near a stream," according to a fact sheet included in the rule-making. It acknowledged there has been confusion about the rule among federal and state regulators. The revisions are an attempt to clarify the situation, the agency told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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