Draft Rule to Let Mines Dump in Streams
The Bush administration has drafted a rule that would permit coal and hard-rock mining companies to continue piling leftover rock and dirt into the streams of nearby valleys.
Environmentalists charged Thursday that the rule would allow companies to fill waterways with mining wastes and toxins.
“It is the most sweeping major rollback of Clean Water Act rules in the last 30 years,” Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Daniel Rosenberg said.
Environmental Protection Agency officials countered that the proposed rule would merely permit industry to continue to do what it has been doing for decades.
“It doesn’t change the way we currently regulate,” said Greg Peck, deputy wetlands director for EPA.
The rule, which the administration has said it will publish in final form this month, would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to give permits for the discharge of waste into streams.
Approval From Congress Not Needed
Coal and hard-rock mining companies have been pressuring the administration for the rule change because they want to ensure that they can continue piling leftover rock and dirt into nearby valleys, even if they hold streams.
The rule, which the administration can put into effect without congressional approval, would particularly affect the Appalachian coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky, where it would permit a practice that is permanently transforming the landscape.
Mining companies are using giant machines to remove the top several hundred feet of mountain ridges to expose the low-sulfur coal that lies in layers between rock and dirt. They have dumped excess rock and dirt from the operations into hundreds of valleys, filling more than 1,000 miles of streams across the region.
“In West Virginia, it will allow the destruction of hundreds of miles of stream and hundreds of square miles of forests,” said Joe Lovett, a West Virginia lawyer who has represented Appalachian residents in suits against mountaintop mining operations. “This is the Bush administration carrying water for the coal industry.”
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman this week defended the change. “It’s not a giveaway to the mining industry. It doesn’t allow activity that isn’t already underway.”
If finalized, the rule likely would undermine a pending lawsuit that challenges the corps’ right to permit coal companies to fill streams with mining waste, the Bush administration and environmentalists agreed.
A draft of the final rule, dated Feb. 28, was provided Thursday to The Times by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
EPA officials said the draft reflects the administration’s plans, although changes may be made before it is finalized. EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said the agency will “soon” implement the new rule.
A Clinton administration proposal, never put into action, had considered designating some material, such as toxic substances, as unsuitable fill. The Bush proposal has no such requirements.
Also unlike the Clinton proposal, the Bush draft would not require that companies abide by so-called effluent standards, which restrict the amount of toxins that industries can release into waterways and wetlands from solid fill.
Roger Flynn, an attorney for the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Mining Action Project, said the new rule could mean that more high-sulfur rock dug up with gold and other minerals would end up polluting streams in the West.
Some Trash Still Off Limits as Fill
Environmentalists complained that the EPA responded to the industry’s requests for changes to the rule but ignored thousands of requests from environmental groups and their supporters.
Peck said the new rule specifically would forbid tossing ordinary trash--such as junk cars, old tires and discarded kitchen appliances.
He added that the rule did not mean that the EPA condoned all the effects of mountaintop removal mining.
The EPA and other federal agencies are studying the effects of mountaintop removal mining and plan to present an environmental impact statement this summer that will include suggestions for any needed regulatory changes, Peck said.