Coalfield residents on Wednesday night blasted a Bush administration plan to remove a key rule that — if enforced — could limit mountaintop removal mining.Coal operators, miners and vendors also turned out to back a rule change they say would protect their industry from lawsuits and other regulatory hurdles.More than 250 people overflowed a meeting room at the Charleston House Holiday Inn for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement public hearing.Before the evening hearing, two dozen anti-mining activists protested along Kanawha Boulevard across the street from the hotel. They stood in steady rain, holding signs that said, “Pull the rule — protect our water.”“The administration should not go forward with any rule that weakens existing law,” said Judy Bonds of the group Coal River Mountain Watch. “It should enforce the rules as they are written.”Similar protests were planned at companion OSM public hearings Wednesday night in Hazard, Ky.; Washington, Pa.; and Knoxville, Tenn.Inside the Charleston hearing, more than 100 mining supporters lined the back of the room, many of them wearing Walker Machinery denim shirts and sporting “Friends of Coal” stickers.John Harden, an electrician at the Hobet 21 mountaintop removal mine in Boone County, said he and his fellow workers are environmentalists who improve water quality with their mining and leave reclaimed sites in good shape and ready for development.
“We like to hunt and we like to fish,” Harden said.Harden also recalled seeing the Grand Canyon during a motorcycle tour across country this summer.“I looked at the Grand Canyon and I said, ‘Wow, that looks like my job,’” Harden said. “And it’s a national historic site.”OSM scheduled the hearing to gather views on its latest proposal to revise a nearly 25-year-old rule that generally prohibits mining within 100 feet of streams.
The new proposal would exempt valley fill waste piles from the buffer zone protections. A companion rule would require coal operators to minimize fills and consider alternatives.But OSM concluded this rule would “cause no discernable changes to the direct stream impact trend” or at best “a minor decrease in length of stream impacted.”“The proposed rule is subterfuge, designed to evade the purpose of the surface mining act and the Clean Water Act,” said former federal mine inspector Jack Spadaro. “Shame on the Office of Surface Mining for proposing this disgraceful rule change.”
The OSM hearings come just weeks after a federal judge blocked a Clean Water Act permit for a Boone County mine, a move expected to cost 39 miners their jobs.Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the rule change is an “opportunity to put an end to the wasteful litigation which has seriously hampered energy production for the last ten years.“It’s time to put this controversy to rest and get on with the business of producing reliable, low-cost critically needed energy for this country,” Raney said.Under the existing “buffer zone” rule, coal operators can already obtain variances to mine within the 100-foot area around streams. To do so, companies must show that their operations will not cause water quality violations or “adversely affect the water quantity and quality, or other environmental resources of the stream.”For years, state and federal regulators essentially ignored the rule. Between 1985 and 2001, coal companies buried more than 724 miles of Appalachian streams, generally without getting variances or proving how burying streams does not adversely affect them.In 1999, then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II concluded that the rule prohibited valley fills in all but the smallest of Appalachian streams. That decision was overturned on appeal, but OSM and the Bush administration still moved to rewrite the rule.
OSM’s latest proposed changes are a follow-up to a proposal issued in January 2004. Citizen groups harshly criticized that proposal, and OSM backed off to conduct what it said would be a more detailed environmental study of the issue.The study, issued in late August, found that coal operators will bury or otherwise damage another 535 miles of Appalachian streams under permits issued between October 2001 and June 2005.Information about the OSM proposal can be found online at www.osmre.gov. The public comment period runs through Nov. 23.