Saturday, April 27, 2002

Miners debate water rules

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Environmentalists say a Bush administration proposal to alter clean-water rules will encourage “mountaintop mining” of coal in which the tops of ridges are sheared off and dirt and rock pushed into waterways.

        The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers share responsibility for ensuring compliance with the Clean Water Act by controlling permits for various types of dumping. The proposed rule they drafted would eliminate the provision in Army Corps regulations that bans mining waste from being put in waterways.

        “They want the right to treat public waters as their own garbage dumps,” Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Daniel Rosenberg said. His target was the mining industry, which sought the change.

        The National Mining Association said putting rocks and dirt from mining operations in waterways is no different from filling stream beds to create land for construction, allowed under Army Corps rules.

        Mountaintop mining is most prevalent in West Virginia and Kentucky. The highly efficient technique allows a company to recover the maximum amount of coal at the lowest cost.

        Opponents say it violates Army Corps regulations dating to the 1970s, which state that rivers and streams may not be used as repositories for industrial waste. They are suing the Army Corps in federal court in Charleston, W.Va., over the issuance of scores of permits to allow the mining.

        The Bush administration has been attuned to the interests of the mining industry, which is influential in presidential battleground states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

        President Bush narrowly defeated Vice President Al Gore in West Virginia in 2000, the first Republican presidential contender to carry the state since 1984.

        President Clinton proposed rules similar to those now being considered, but the Clinton administration backed away from its draft regulations under pressure from environmentalists. That upset many in the mining industry.

        The White House will have the final say on the proposed rule change, and it is “premature to speculate about any decision,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

        Joe Lovett, lead lawyer in the lawsuit against the Army Corps, said mountaintop mining has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams in Appalachia. He said the case would be undercut if the proposed rule takes effect.

        National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said the rule would simply make the Army Corps definition of “fill material” conform with EPA's definition, a point noted in the draft regulations.

        Joan Mulhern, a lawyer at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said she didn't have a problem with the two agencies reconciling their definitions of fill material.


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