The New York Times
Published: August 27, 2007
Give the Bush administration credit for persistence. It just won’t let a bad idea die. On Friday, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining proposed new regulations that it hopes will permanently legalize mountaintop mining — a cheap, ruthlessly efficient, environmentally destructive means of mining coal from the mountains of Appalachia.
By our count, this is the third attempt in the last six years to enshrine the practice by insulating it from legal challenge. But since the net result is likely to be more confusion and more courtroom wrestling, the situation cries out for Congressional intervention to define once and for all what mining companies can and cannot do.
Mountaintop mining is basically high-altitude strip mining. Enormous machines scrape away the ridges to get at the coal seams below. The residual rock and dirt are then dumped or carted down the mountainside into nearby valleys and streams. By one estimate, this serial decapitation of Appalachia’s coal-rich hills has already buried 1,200 miles of streams while damaging hundreds of square miles of forests.
No recent administration, Democratic or Republican, has made a serious effort to end the dumping, largely in deference to the financial influence of the coal industry and the political influence of Robert Byrd, West Virginia’s senior senator. But the Bush people have been particularly resourceful in perpetuating the practice.
In 2002, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency rewrote clean water regulations in a way that magically added mine waste to the list of materials that can be used to fill in streams for development and other purposes. In 2004, confronted with yet another obstacle — the so-called stream buffer zone rule prohibiting any mining activity within 100 feet of a stream — the administration decided that the rule only required companies to respect the buffer zone “to the extent practicable,” in effect green-lighting further dumping. The new rule not only reaffirms the 2004 rule but also seems specifically to authorize the disposal of “excess spoil fills,” a k a mine waste, in hollows and streams.
Studies have identified more benign, though admittedly more costly, ways to dispose of the waste, while other studies have warned that unless alternatives are found, an area larger than the state of Delaware will be laid waste by dynamite and bulldozer by the end of this decade, poisoning water supplies and leading to continuous flooding.
With that in mind, two members of Congress — Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Christopher Shays of Connecticut — introduced a bill last spring that would reaffirm Clean Water Act protections prohibiting mining companies and other industries from dumping solid industrial wastes into the nation’s waters. The bill has already picked up 60 sponsors in its brief life, and the administration’s latest sleight of hand should add more converts to the cause.