Washington — 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 wildlife.”
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 removal mine.
“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.
By Dina Cappiello
Source: Associated Press – April 27, 2009