WASHINGTON – The Obama administration took steps Monday to reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows mountaintop mining waste to be dumped near streams, saying it was bad public policy.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the rule didn’t “pass the smell test” and he wanted a federal judge to give the Office of Surface Mining another crack at refining the so-called buffer zone rule. If a judge approves, Salazar proposed the temporary reinstatement of a 1983 regulation that would keep coal companies 100 feet away from streams unless they could prove mining wouldn’t harm water quality or quantity.
Two lawsuits pending in federal court seek to block or overturn the Bush rule, which was approved the month the administration left office.
In a court filing Monday on one of the cases, Justice Department lawyers said the rule should be vacated because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not been consulted about its effect on threatened and endangered species. Sending the rule back to be reworked would achieve the same relief sought by the lawsuits, the filing said.
“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 wildlife.”
But environmentalists who would like to see mountaintop removal end altogether said the Interior Department would have to do more to protect waterways from mountaintop mining. Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiffs in one of the cases, said that while the lawsuit would be null and void if the judge agrees with the administration, the fight would go on to ensure the rule was enforced.
“With the explosives and bulldozers standing by, it will take tough enforcement and more rule changes and legislation to end mountaintop removal coal mining completely,” said Mary Anne Hitt, a deputy director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
Mining officials responded to Monday’s announcement saying it added another layer of uncertainty about the industry’s ability to obtain permits and mine coal.
“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.