Loosening rules on mining technique will harm region
from the Kentucky
Mountaintop removal, the destructive strip-mining practice that has ravished the Appalachian landscape for more than 20 years, is on the verge of gaining a stronger legal foothold if a proposed federal regulation becomes law.
The mining technique entails blowing the tops off mountains to make the coal inside more easily accessible, and a large amount of waste, known as spoil, is produced in the process. The proposed new regulation, which the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement published Friday, makes it easier for mine operators to dump the spoil within 100 feet of flowing streams as long as they agree to minimize damage to streams "to the extent possible."
But the proposal gives no specific guidelines about which waste-dumping practices fall outside the law. Instead, it says regulators will decide "on a case-by-case basis" whether mine operators have failed to do enough to avoid damaging the environment.
So whereas current law errs on the side of the environment - mine operators must get an exemption each time they put spoil in a stream, the Kernel reported Friday - the change, if enacted, will give waste-dumpers the benefit of the doubt.
A coal-industry representative downplayed the significance of the proposed change, saying it wouldn't lead to more mountaintop removal.
"This new change is intended to codify existing practices that have been occurring for the past 30 years," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, in Friday's Kernel. "This does not mean that we will be doing more surface mining as a result of the change. It will be business as usual."
But business as usual is exactly the problem: Mountaintop removal has already done irreparable harm to waterways in Appalachia. By 2002, spoil from mining sites had already affected 724 miles, or 1.2 percent, of central Appalachian streams, according to the environmental impact statement accompanying the proposed change - and the damage isn't slowing down.
"If valley fills continue to be constructed at this rate," the statement said, "an additional 724 miles of headwater stream would be buried in 17 years or by 2018."
Mountaintop removal is not an issue that the UK community can comfortably ignore, even if the landscapes being ruined are hundreds of miles east of Lexington. Coal makes up 14 percent of Kentucky's economy and provides 90 percent of the state's electricity, according to figures on the state's Web site (http://www.kentucky.gov/). Even when we just flick on the lights, we're reaping the benefits of a mining practice that is ruining stream ecosystems in Appalachia.
Fortunately, the new rules won't take effect until at least the end of a 60-day period, which ends Oct. 23, for residents to submit comments about the proposal.
To comment online, go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal (http://www.regulations.gov/), select "Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement" from the first drop-down box, and press "Submit."
On the list of results that comes up, find the document called "Excess Spoil, Coal Mine Waste, and Buffers for Waters of the United States," and press the talk-bubble image on the right to see the comment form.
Federal officials should be strengthening regulations on mountaintop removal, not making it easier for mine operators to harm Appalachian ecosystems. At this point, public outcry may be the only way to remind them of that. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------© Copyright 2007 KY Kernel
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~"Bringing Down the Mountains: the Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities," now available for preorder through the WVU Press, at amazon.com, or other fine on-line retailers.