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Bush’s Mountaintop Coal Mining Rule Faces Probable Overturn

April 28, 2009

The U.S. Interior Department intends to overturn a Bush administration regulation that allowed coal mining companies to dispose of mountaintop debris into valley streams with little consequence, Reuters reported on Monday. 

Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, called the regulation a “major misstep” warranting his decision to propose to the Justice Department to go to the courts to withdraw the Bush rule and give it back to the Interior to terminate the policy. 

Salazar suggests the Bush-sanctioned regulation permitted coal mining companies to use “the cheapest and most convenient disposal option” for mountaintop fill. 

“We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports,” Salazar said.

More than fifty percent of U.S. electricity is supplied from coal.  The steep mountains of Appalachia, across Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky hold most of the coal attained from surface mining, and accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production. 

Mountaintop mining practices involve scraping the surface of mountains and distributing the bits of mountaintop debris into the encompassing valleys.  Major energy companies that participate in this practice include Arch Coal Inc and Consol Energy. 

Coal mine operators are permitted to dispose of excess debris in and within 100 feet of neighboring streams whenever alternative methods are determined “not reasonably possible,” according to the Bush regulation. 

The Bush law traded a 1983 rule that sanctioned dumping within 100 feet of a stream if it would not “adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.”

Hal Quinn, the chief executive for the National Mining Association criticized the department’s opposition to the Bush regulation.

“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,” Quinn said in a statement.

Salazar informed that the majority of states still maintain operations according to the 1983 rule, and further he did not think the department’s attempts would affect coal mining operations or permits that were issued under the older regulation. 

“The 1983 rule was more protective of water and water quality in the stream, so there is no policy or legal justification to abandon the 1983 rule,” Salazar said.

However, the environmental group Earthjustice asserts that the 1983 rule was not implemented strictly against waste dumping. 

Earthjustice senior legislative counsel Joan Mulhern commented, “Unless this announcement is accompanied by a firm commitment to enforce the law as it applies to mountaintop removal and valley fills, it’s meaningless.”

If the agency can affirm that the mining would permanently damage water quality by polluting valley streams, EPA has legal authority to prohibit permits for mountaintop coal mines. 

Other initiatives of the Interior Department include the extension of the comment period on a controversial offshore leasing plan that would open previously banned areas to drilling.

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