Bush Finalizes Last Minute Rule on Coal Mining Waste

By SEAN MUSSENDEN
Media General News Service

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration published a last-minute rule Friday that will make it easier for strip-mining operations to dump waste in streams. 

Environmental advocates say the change will increase the practice of mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia. They’re pushing President-elect Barack Obama to reverse the rule after he takes office. 

Obama has criticized the practice, in which the tops of mountains are blasted off in order to access coal seams and the rubble pushed into valleys and streams below. 

“I’m hoping Obama will rescind it somehow,” said Larry Bush, a former coal miner and federal mine inspector in Exeter, Va., who over the last decade has watched a stream near his house fill with silt from a nearby coal strip-mining operation. 

“I trapped minnows out of that stream nearly all my life, and there’s nothing in it anymore,” he said. “It’s basically dead.”

The rule will take effect Jan. 12, about a week before Obama enters the White House. 

It follows a 2002 change by the Bush administration that made it easier for mining companies to obtain permits to dispose of waste from mountain-top removal operations.

“The Bush administration has taken a couple administrative steps over the last several years to basically authorize this process. This is yet another,” said Jon Devine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Officials with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said conflicting court decisions regarding disposal of surface mining waste required a rule clarifying the issue. 

“The industry needed greater legal certainty,” said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. 

Environmental groups said they planned to pressure Obama to reverse the rule and take other steps to ban the practice of mountaintop removal mining, which has flattened hundreds of Appalachian peaks in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. 

In 2007, Obama told the environmental group Appalachian Voices that “strip-mining is an environmental disaster,” adding “we have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains.”

As the Bush administration has finalized a host of controversial, last-minute policy changes over the last month, Obama’s transition team has remained circumspect about his plans for the rules. 

Lobbyists and attorneys for several environmental groups who track the issue said in interviews they did not know how Obama would address the rule issued Friday.

“He wasn’t terribly specific on the campaign trail (about specific federal rules), but he clearly has a negative view of mountaintop removal. I hope he’s inclined to try to stop this,” said Ed Hopkins, Director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program. 

The Obama transition team did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday. 

Even if Obama is predisposed to undoing the rule change, doing so quickly could be a challenge because it will take effect before Bush leaves office, environmental attorneys said. 

“Unfortunately, reversing it can be pretty complicated, and it’s a bit of a timing game,” said Nat Mund, legislative director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There are some procedural hurdles. It’s not a slam dunk to get it overturned.”

Raulston, the mining industry spokeswoman, said her group also planned to lobby Obama to preserve the changes using an economic argument. 

“Everything we hear from them is that they’re focused on jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said. “There are 14,000 coal miners employed in Appalachia in the type of mining covered directly by this rule.”

Sean Mussenden can be reached at smussenden@mediageneral.com or 202-662-7668

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