WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is taking steps to
reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows mountaintop mining
waste to be dumped near streams.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday the administration
will ask a federal court to abandon the rule that made it easier
for coal mining companies to dump waste near streams. If the court
agrees, the Obama administration could start drafting a new
regulation that better protects waterways and communities sooner
than if it sought to rewrite the measure itself.
Salazar said the rule, finalized with a little more than a month
before President George W. Bush left office, was bad policy. Two
lawsuits pending in federal court sought to block or overturn the
rule. The Obama administration's decision puts the federal
government in the rare position of siding with the parties that
filed the lawsuits.
"The responsible development of our coal supplies is important
to America's energy security," Salazar said in a conference call
with reporters. "But as we develop these reserves we must also
protect our treasured landscapes, our land, our water and our
Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiffs in one of the
lawsuits, accused Salazar of attempting to spike the litigation.
"This came out of the blue," spokeswoman Joan Mulhern said,
adding that no one in the administration talked with Earthjustice
before Monday's announcement.
Mulhern also complained that reverting to the status quo is not
enough because it won't prevent coal companies from filling valleys
with mine waste. "That's not helping the communities concerned
with mountaintop removal."
Prior to the change, regulations in place since 1983 have barred
mining companies from dumping waste within 100 feet of streams if
the disposal would diminish water quality or quantity.
"The Secretary of the Interior's move to undo a seven year
rulemaking process is precipitous and will only add to the
uncertainty that is delaying mining operations and jeopardizing
jobs," National Mining Association Chief Executive Hal Quinn said
in a statement. "We trust the Secretary of the Interior does not
plan on engaging in a de facto rulemaking, thereby avoiding the
transparency integral to a fair and legal regulation."
The action is the latest by the Obama administration to address
mountaintop removal for coal, a process in which mining companies
remove vast areas to expose coal. While they are required to
restore much of the land, the removal creates many tons of rocks,
debris and other waste that are trucked away and then dumped into
valley areas, where streams flow.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was
cracking down on mountaintop removal by taking a closer look at 150
to 200 permits.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor says it's
unclear what the administration's action will mean for the
industry. A primary reason for the Bush administration's changes
was to clarify whether the 1983 rules covered ephemeral streams
that occasionally carry water.
"The original rule was clear that it did not apply to these
little, small, dry ditches," Caylor said. "It helped by
clarifying it because there was starting to be litigation."
Salazar said he talked to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin before
Monday's announcement. Manchin spokesman Matt Turner said the
governor invited Salazar to the state to visit a mountaintop
"There has to be a balance and that is what he (Manchin) is
looking for," Turner said. "There has to be a realistic
understanding of how much energy comes from coal. We just can't
instantly wean ourselves from this energy source."
Manchin complained to the administration after the EPA announced
it wanted to review permits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was
considering for mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia,
Kentucky and Virginia.
Associated Press Writer Brian Farkas and AP Business Writer Tim
Huber contributed to this report from Charleston, W.Va.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)