CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A federal judge on Wednesday rebuffed the Obama administration’s attempt to reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows surface mine waste to be dumped near streams.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wanted the rule vacated, saying in April the regulation approved the month President George W. Bush left office “failed to pass the smell test.” Salazar wanted to return to a 1983 regulation that kept coal companies 100 feet from streams unless they can prove mining won’t harm water quality or quantity.
But U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. in Washington wrote in his ruling that granting Salazar’s request would be tantamount to changing a federal regulation without public input.
The Interior Department said it is reviewing the decision.
“This Administration has shown it is determined to improve mining practices and we will do so within the context of the court’s ruling,” spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in an e-mail.
The ruling is a victory for the U.S. coal industry but another defeat for opponents of mountaintop removal mining, 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 debris that’s used to fill nearby valleys.
Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most used – West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee – produce nearly 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal that produces electricity in the U.S.
Groups such as the Sierra Club want the practice banned, claiming it destroys mountaintops and pollutes water, among other things.