Rule Change Makes It Easier To Dump Mining Waste

The Environmental Protection agency approved Tuesday new rules that make it easier for mining companies to dump waste near rivers and streams. Environmentalists argue that dumping the rubble fouls the waters, kills fish and causes flooding in nearby communities.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. In its last days in power, the Bush administration is finishing up work on a whole array of regulations. One of the most controversial changes relates to the mining method of mountain top removal. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on a new rule which makes it easier for mining companies to dump their waste into nearby rivers and streams. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has been covering this issue. Elizabeth, why don't you explain about mountain top mining and what this debris is that we're talking about?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: I've actually seen this in West Virginia. I've flown over it by air and been on one mountain top looking over to another mountain top where this was going on. The coal companies take huge machines they called drag lines. And they literally take the top of the mountains off.

Envision, say, a layer cake, a multi-layered cake, and the coal lies in - like the frosting in between the layers. So, the companies will take the rock and dirt off and take away the coal and they put this rock and dirt that's left over into the valleys, these high mountain valleys and streams. And so far, they've literally covered up 1,200 miles of streams with this process.

So, it's a big process. It's going on all over Appalachia and West Virginia, in Kentucky, in Tennessee. And as they go about it, there's a lot of environmental impacts. Of course, they have to cut down the forests in order to do this. That chases away song birds. This also increases flooding. And so, there's flooding in the valleys where the people live below. And then, of course, to blow up the mountains, they need a lot of explosives, and there some impacts of those as well.

BLOCK: This rule has been in place for what - about 25 years limiting where this debris could go, how close it could be to streams. But why did the Bush administration feel it wanted to change this rule?

SHOGREN: Well, there had been a lot of uncertainty about how the rule was being applied. It's called the Buffer Zone Rule, and it says that you can't do any mining within 100 feet of a stream, which seems pretty clear. But it gives some caveats, and those caveats is part of what this argument is all about.

One federal judge several years ago decided that this rule basically made the whole process of mountain-top mining illegal. That ruling got overturned on a procedural matter, and so since then, there's been a question of what would happen? And even though this rule has been on the books, both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration have given these mines permits to do exactly what they do.

BLOCK: Now, the mining industry is very happy about this rule change. Environmentalists, obviously, are not. I saw this quote from a leading environmentalist in Kentucky. He called it an early Christmas present to the industry. How are the officials at EPA explaining why they signed on to this rule change allowing dumping close to streams or in streams?

SHOGREN: Well, they say that nothing about this violates the Clean Water Act, and they say that one of the things that made them sign off on it was that, in fact, one of the things they did is, they fought to keep on this rule specification that the mines cannot violate water quality standards, either federal or state water quality standards. And they say that this does not violate the Clean Water Act.

BLOCK: How is that possible if you're closing off or blocking off a stream? How does that not violate the Clean Water Act?

SHOGREN: Well, that's very hard to understand, and that's, in fact, what this Judge Hayden had decided when he ruled against this procedure. He said, you can't basically cover up miles and miles of stream and say it doesn't affect water quality. There is no more water, so how is that - I mean, there might be water seeping out somewhere, but it clearly affects water quality, and it affects streams.

And that's - but it's a very difficult situation here because what you've got is two priorities that are fighting against each other. You've got the desire to produce cheap electricity, and everybody wants to pay a low price bill. And fighting against that, you've got the desire to preserve landscapes, and that's a big deal, too.

BLOCK: With the new Obama administration coming in, let's say they wanted to overturn this rule. Could they do that? How would they do that if they wanted to?

SHOGREN: Well first off, it's not exactly clear what an Obama administration would want to do about mountain top mining. During the campaign, Mr. Obama did say he had concerns about what mountain top mining was doing to Appalachia. Unlike his opponent, Senator McCain, he didn't say that he wanted to stop it out right. And the politics of mountain top mining are very complicated.

Congress also has the power to reject this rule if it wants to. But senior senators from West Virginia actually support mountain top mining. And so, it's not clear exactly what would happen, especially because more and more politicians from the region are standing up to say they have concerns about mountain top mining. The governors of both Tennessee and Kentucky wrote the EPA to ask them not to sign off on this rule.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren, thanks very much.

SHOGREN: Thank you.

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