By Martha Bryson Hodel
The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Environmentalists who sued state and federal agencies over the regulation of large-scale strip mining in Appalachia were dismayed this week at the outcome of a lengthy government study.
After four years and $8 million worth of studies, four federal agencies on Thursday released a 5,000-page draft of an environmental impact statement that outlines three proposals for coordinating the regulation of strip mining.
"We would never have agreed to settle the case if we had known the extent to which the administration will go to have politics trump scientific reality," said Cindy Rank of Rock Cave. Rank is mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, which filed the 1998 federal lawsuit that led to the study.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining said it was important to balance environmental issues with the need for coal. More than half of the nation's electricity is generated with coal.
The agencies reported that 28.5 billion tons of high quality coal remains available in the 12-million acre area included in the study.
"This coal makes an important contribution to the energy needs of the economy - 52 percent of American energy comes from coal," the agencies said in a news release.
Matt Crum, director of mining and reclamation for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said West Virginia has revised its mining regulatory program during the course of the four-year study, and so has few other changes to make.
A key part of the study has been to find a way to coordinate the work of the multiple agencies that have authority over strip mining. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, OSM and the Corps all have authority over some aspects of strip mining.
"It's a lot more than learning to work together," said Mike Robinson of the OSM.
One subject much debated is an issue known as "mitigation," which has been interpreted in various ways over the years since the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act took effect.
Under one set of rules, a valley fill - the process by which leftover rock and dirt is deposited into nearby stream beds - must be mitigated by improving another stream.
The lengthy statement did little to placate environmentalists who oppose the mining method.
"The Bush administration is determined to remove any obstacles to maximizing profit for an outlaw coal industry," said Teri Blanton of the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that also has filed a lawsuit challenging mountaintop removal mining.
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