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The Washington Independent, August 12, 2009

Judge Shoots Down White House Effort to Curb Mountaintop Mining
By Mike Lillis

A federal judge today blocked the Obama administration’s efforts overturn a Bush administration rule allowing coal companies to dump their mining waste in mountain streams.

The ruling is a victory for Appalachian mountaintop removal operations, where the peaks of mountains are literally lopped off with dynamite and the rock and soil pushed into adjacent valleys, many of which contain small streams that represent the headwaters of larger bodies of water below.

A 1983 law prevents mining — or disposing of mine debris — within 100 feet of streams if the activity is shown to harm water quality. But in December, the Bush White House finalized an industry-friendly rule that effectively scrapped the so-called “stream buffer zone rule.”

Calling the move “legally defective,” the Obama White House in April asked a federal judge to overturn the Bush rule change. But today, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., declined to do so, arguing that a change in regulation requires public input.

The Interior Department says it’s working on a statement about its next step.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has already issued one of its own, calling on the White House to take even bolder steps to curb mountaintop removal.

With the administration currently considering more than 80 permit applications for new mountaintop removal coal mining, it will take policy changes at the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, along with tough enforcement, to end the destruction completely and protect Appalachian communities.

There’s good reason for the environmentalists’ concerns. Despite vows to protect Appalachia’s waterways, the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved yet another mountaintop removal operation in southwest West Virginia — a project that will fill eight valleys with mining waste. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave its final approval for CONSOL Energy Inc.’s Peg Fork Surface Mine on Friday. The move comes just a few months after the EPA approved 42 pending surface-mine permits in the Appalachian states.

Despite promises to install more transparency into its permit approval process, the EPA did not announce its decision to OK the Peg Fork mine.

© 2009 The Washington Independent

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton