As has been expected, the Bush Administration is proposing to make it easier for mining companies to engage in so-called mountaintop mining aka mountaintop removal. This mining method involves blowing the tops off of mountains so as to expose coal deposits, and depositing the resulting rubble in adjacent valleys and streams. On Friday, the official day for most Bush Administration environmental announcements, the Office of Surface Mining will publish proposed regulations explicitly allowing for the practice subject to certain conditions, according to the New York Times. "The new rule would allow the practice to continue and expand, providing only that mine operators minimize the debris and cause the least environmental harm, although those terms are not clearly defined and to some extent merely restate existing law." Among other things, mining companies will be required to engage in some land reclamation after mining is complete.
Roughly half the coal in West Virginia is from mountaintop mining, which is generally cheaper, safer and more efficient than extraction from underground mines like the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, which may have claimed the lives of nine miners and rescuers, and the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners were killed last year.
The rule, which would apply to waste from both types of mines, is known as the stream buffer zone rule. First adopted in 1983, it forbids virtually all mining within 100 feet of a river or stream.
The Interior Department drafted the proposal to try to clear up a 10-year legal and regulatory dispute over how the 1983 rule should be applied. The change is to be published on Friday in The Federal Register, officials said.
The Army Corps of Engineers, state mining authorities and local courts have read the rule liberally, allowing extensive mountaintop mining and dumping of debris in coal-rich regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste, according to the environmental impact statement accompanying the new rule.
If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018, the report says. . . .
Interior Department officials said they could not comment on the rule because it had not been published. But a senior official of the Office of Surface Mining said the stream buffer rule was never intended to prohibit all mining in and around streams, but rather just to minimize the effects of such work.
Even with the best techniques and most careful reclamation, surface or underground mining will always generate mountains of dirt and rock, he said.
"There's really no place to put the material except in the upper reaches of hollows," the official said. "If you can't put anything in a stream, there's really no way to even underground mine."
He said the regulation would explicitly state that the buffer zone rule does not apply for hundreds of miles of streams and valleys and that he hoped, but did not expect, that the rule would end the fight over mine waste.