Two years ago, federal regulators studying mountaintop removal mining considered limiting valley fills to small streams in the upper reaches of watersheds.In preliminary drafts of their study, government officials came up with four alternatives to restrict the size of valley fills.Those alternatives, the agencies said in several versions of their report, should be the heart of any plan to improve regulation of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.In the first official version of the study, released late last week, the Bush administration abandoned consideration of any such restrictions.Instead, the federal Office of Surface Mining and the Army Corps of Engineers would approve or reject fills on a "case-by-case basis," according to the draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, issued Thursday.Agency officials promised that a more detailed and better-coordinated review of mining permit applications would reduce the number and size of streams buried by valley fills."Some people may think an absolute limit is appropriate," said Mike Robinson, an OSM program manager who helped write the report."But we think it should be a site-specific decision," Robinson said. "The case-by-case method is a lot more flexible."The National Mining Association praised the government proposal as a "road map for further environmental improvements at Appalachian coal mining operations."Environmental activists and coalfield citizens said the Bush proposals are contrary to the statement goal of the study: To limit the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal."The federal agencies have broken their promise," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "We have some greasing of the permitting process and rollback of protections."Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the Washington group Earthjustice, said, "Only in Bizarro World could this document be considered to be calling for reduced environmental impacts."'Increasingly concerned'In mountaintop removal mining, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable low-sulfur coal reserves.Huge shovels and trucks haul away the coal. Dozers and more trucks shove leftover rock and dirt - the stuff that used to be the mountains - into nearby valleys, burying streams.In 1998, the Conservancy filed the first in a series of major lawsuits to try to curb mountaintop removal.To settle part of the initial lawsuit, the corps and other agencies promised to conduct a detailed study of mountaintop removal's environmental effects.At the time, the agencies said that they were "increasingly concerned" about damage to forests and streams. In a Federal Register notice announcing the study, the agencies said that, when the review was complete, the results would be used to draw up new rules "that would minimize the potential for adverse individual and cumulative impacts of mining operations."Under the legal settlement, the study was supposed to take two years and be completed by December 2000.Several times, West Virginia political leaders, including Gov. Bob Wise, blocked formal public release of a preliminary draft. But over the last two years, thousands of pages of study documents and draft reports have been obtained through public records requests.2 1/2 years lateOn Thursday - 2 1/2 years late - the first official draft of the mining study was released.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service joined OSM and the corps in announcing the release.In press briefings and news releases last week, agency officials said little about the environmental impacts found by the study team.A joint news release included only one sentence about the effects, and it emphasized a reduction in mining permits since the legal battle began."Permit data comparing surface coal mining operations approved since 1998, with those authorized for the five years prior to 1998, show that the total area of Appalachian watersheds covered by valley fills was cut by over 50 percent and the total length of streams covered by these fills was cut by over 25 percent," the release said.Buried in the more than 5,000-page report and in dozens of attached scientific studies were detailed descriptions of the damage already done by mining and gloomy predictions of future impacts.For example, between 1985 and 2001, nearly 6,700 valley fills were approved in the study region, which included West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee.Those fills, the study found, covered an area of nearly 84,000 acres - more than the total acreage of all West Virginia state parks combined.In West Virginia alone, valley fills buried an area of more than 25,000 acres, or enough to cover 19,000 football fields.Across the region, valley fills have already buried about 724 miles of streams, the study concluded."The direct burial of stream segments by excess spoil for [mining] operations is a long-term irretrievable commitment of resources for the buried stream segment," according to the study.In a report on cumulative impacts of mountaintop removal, the study team concluded that more than 1,200 miles of streams have already been damaged directly or indirectly by mining. Over the next 10 years, the study stated, another 1,000 miles of streams could be damaged.Also, the study found, mountaintop removal reclamation practices are leaving rich, diverse forests as flattened or rolling grasslands."Results of this study support the thesis that fundamental changes to the terrestrial environment of the study area may occur from mountaintop mining," the study stated."For example, it is estimated that the study area may have lost approximately 3.4 percent forest cover in the last 10 years from surface mining," it stated. "This equates to 380,547 acres."When adding past, present and future terrestrial disturbance, the study area estimated forest impact is 1,408,372 acres, which equates to 11.5 percent of the study area."The study team noted that, "The southern Appalachians have been identified by the Nature Conservancy as one of the hot-spot areas in the United States for rarity and richness."This region is known to have the highest regional concentration of aquatic biodiversity in the nation," the study said. "For this reason, it is hypothesized that impacts which result in decreases in genetic diversity, as measured by loss of species, loss of populations or loss of genetic variants, would have a disproportionately large impact on the total aquatic genetic diversity of the nation."Unpublished draftsWhen agencies write these kinds of studies, they are required to consider "alternatives" for government action: build a highway or not, cut down all of the trees in a forest or only some of them.An EIS is supposed to be a sort of cost-benefit analysis that weighs environmental harms of government - and society's - actions.In their unpublished preliminary drafts of the mining study, federal officials stated that they would consider four alternatives for future limits on valley fills:s A baseline alternative. Basically, agencies would do things as they had been before lawsuits over mountaintop removal were filed. "Under this alternative, fills would not be restricted to any particular stream segment," according to a draft obtained in 2001 through a Freedom of Information Act request.s A very strict limit on valley fills. Coal operators would not be able to dump waste rock and dirt into very small streams, defined as those that drain more than 75 acres of land.s A middle-of-the-road approach. This would allow valley fills in larger waterways farther downstream. Regulators were evaluating watersheds ranging from 76 acres to 250 acres.s Another compromise route. Fills would not be limited to any particular size streams. But other new regulations would be written to "reduce the aquatic, terrestrial and community impact" of mining.In the study released last week, federal regulators dropped consideration of these alternatives.Instead, the alternatives now being considered all focus on which government agency will handle which of the various permits required for mining operations.Under the proposed "preferred alternative," the agencies "would develop enhanced coordination or regulatory actions, while maintaining independent review and decision making by each agency."The government would come up with a "joint application" that coal companies would file to seek all of the permits needed under various environmental laws."In summary, joint evaluations of [mining] proposals would result in more expansive considerations of both environmental impacts and effective treatments to mitigate those impacts," the study stated.During press briefings, all officials from all of the involved agencies praised the proposal."We are very pleased with the direction this EIS is going," said Greg Peck, a deputy EPA administrator. "It's going to provide better protection for the environment."Environmentalists were skeptical that better coordination by various agencies - without concrete new restrictions - would lead to smaller valley fills."We expected there to be limits on the size of fills," said Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "The science clearly shows that those kinds of limits are appropriate."What is remarkable is that those studies were actually used to loosen the reins on mountaintop removal, rather than tighten them," Lovett said.