Cheap coal, dirty air

Coal is one of the most environmentally destructive substances on Earth. Coal-fired power plants, which produce more than half the nation's electricity, are the biggest source of airborne toxic substances in the U.S. and are responsible for about half the particulate matter polluting our skies. They are also often fingered as the biggest contributors to global warming because of the greenhouse gases they emit. What is less discussed is the horrifying damage wrought by coal even before it makes its way to the power plant -- damage that may soon grow even worse thanks to a disgraceful decision by mining regulators.

The Office of Surface Mining has, under the Bush administration, been chipping away at the landmark regulations established by Congress three decades ago to protect the environment from the most abusive mining practices. Last week, this culminated in a decision that would obliterate the 1983 stream buffer zone rule, which forbids mining activities within 100 feet of a river or stream. This has always been an unclear law, subject to interpretation, but it at least served as a slight brake on the practice of dumping mine debris in nearby canyons and valleys, burying streams and devastating mountain ecosystems. The mining agency's decision, which will be finalized after a 60-day comment period, "clarifies" the rule by gutting it.

Mining industry officials claim that it would be all but impossible to mine for coal without destroying streams because all mines, and especially the mountaintop strip mines in the Appalachia region, produce dirt and rubble, and the only place to dump it is in canyons. This is patently untrue. Less industry-friendly administrations have required mining companies to construct fill areas away from headwaters and truck the debris there; somehow, the industry managed to survive.

What the rule change is really about is making coal cheaper. It costs more to mine in an environmentally responsible way, and that in turn raises the price of coal. But everyone is burdened by the costs of the industry's bad practices, in such forms as higher healthcare bills, cleanup costs for water polluted by mines and the expense of rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by a changing climate.

Coal should not be cheap. The only way to encourage cleaner alternatives is to make coal producers and the consumers of coal-fired power pay the true cost of their pollution. It's clear that won't happen at the behest of the Bush administration, which is why Congress must exercise much stronger coal industry oversight and strengthen laws that protect the environment from unsupervised miners.

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