WASHINGTON – The Bush administration finalized rules Tuesday that will make it easier for mountaintop mining companies to dump their waste near rivers and streams, overhauling a 25-year prohibition that has sparked legal and regulatory battles for years.
The regulation got signoffs from the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency this week and will go into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The change is intended to resolve a nearly five-year fight over how companies can dispose of the vast amounts of rubble and sludge created when they blow the tops off mountains to get to the coal buried below, although the incoming Obama administration could revisit the issue.
“This rule strengthens what can and can’t be done in streams,” said Office of Surface Mining spokesman Peter Mali, whose agency crafted the measure.
A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified because the rule has not yet been published, said new safeguards in the regulation will reduce the amount of waste deposited in Appalachian mountain waterways and is “going to impose costs on the coal industry.”
However, coal officials, who had lobbied for the change, said it would not burden the industry and would help protect Appalachia’s 14,000 mountaintop mining jobs.
Mountaintop mining – which yields 130 million tons of coal a year and accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s coal production – is both cheaper and safer than underground mining. But this method of reaching valuable low-sulfur coal seams below ground generates large amounts of rubble and sludge that is usually trucked away to be dumped in the region’s steep valleys.
Under a 1983 law, mining operators were barred from dumping these massive piles of debris, called “valley fills,” within 100 feet of any intermittent or permanent stream if the material would harm a stream’s water quality or reduces its flow. But federal and state courts have issued conflicting interpretations of the law and widespread dumping continued; the government estimated that about 1,600 miles of streams in Appalachia have been wiped out since the mid-1980s, and regulators expect that under the new rule roughly 100 miles of streams will be legally filled in each year.
The regulation requires companies to avoid the 100-foot stream buffer zone unless they show why they cannot. If they do dump the waste in the buffer zone, they must try to minimize or avoid harming streams “to the extent practicable” and compensate for the damage somewhere else.
Environmentalists decried the decision, noting that a July 2008 EPA study documented that waste from coal mining operations in southern West Virginia have been found to be “strongly related to downstream biological impairment,” including a drop in the diversity of aquatic life.
Vernon Haltom, co-director of West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch, said EPA administrator Stephen Johnson’s letter certifying that the new rule complies with the Clean Water Act “is a slap in the face of Appalachian communities, which have already endured enough injustice from mountaintop removal. My home and thousands of others are now in greater jeopardy.”