- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday released proposed rules to allow mountaintop coal mining to continue, a move environmentalists immediately criticized as “disastrous.”

The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) authored by several federal agencies seeks to bring the practice into compliance with the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Mountaintop mining is a form of surface mining done after the top terrain has been removed to reach the coal seam. The leftover rock and soil are dumped in adjacent valleys and streams, often creating flat land in the dense Appalachian Mountains.

The proposal directs government agencies to identify environmental resources in the mining areas and to avoid any effect on highly valued resources.

The agencies would develop plans to mitigate damage and minimize the disposal of excess material, and share data and analyses to make informed decisions before extracting the coal. Protection plans for endangered and threatened species also would be developed.

Environmental groups held a teleconference minutes after the release of the proposed rules, which numbered hundreds of pages.

“It’s socially evil and environmental insanity,” said Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch.

Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice said the federal government was attempting to grease the permit process and roll back strict environmental protections to benefit coal companies. “We’re very disappointed,” she said.

Teri Blanton with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said the coal industry is “crippling” the region and the administration’s “attack on environmental laws are really an attack on the people who live in the coal fields.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, the Office of Surface Mining, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Fish and Wildlife Service also held a teleconference to announce details of their proposal, but media access was limited.

“The draft EIS recommends actions designed specifically to ensure more effective protection for human health and the environment while enabling the nation to continue to receive the energy benefits of cleaner burning Appalachian coal,” according to a joint statement released by the agencies.

The 12 million acres of land and 59,000 miles of streams affected by the new rules include parts of western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. More than 700 miles of streams have been buried by the coal-mining activity.

Nearly 30 billion tons of clean-burning, low-sulfur coal is in the affected area, according to a 1998 Energy Department study. In 1999, about 4.7 billion tons of coal were mined worldwide.

The administration’s proposal is part of a federal court settlement concerning a lawsuit filed against the government in 1998 for not studying the environmental effects on water before issuing permits. U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden ruled that the federal government should not have issued the permits without such studies, but a higher court twice overruled him.

The government has conducted 30 studies and took four years to develop the proposal.

The United Mine Workers of America lobbied the Clinton administration to support legislation overturning Judge Haden’s decision, but had no comment yesterday on the Bush administration’s decision.

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