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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a last-minute rule change long sought by the coal industry to allow mining within 100 feet of rivers and streams. Environmentalists say it makes it harder for them and the incoming Obama administration to challenge a controversial form of coal mining called mountaintop removal. That's when coal companies chop off the tops of mountains, mine the coal underneath and dump the leftover rock and dirt into nearby valleys and streams.
Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on how this decision affects people who live in the shadow of the mountaintop removal.
SCOTT FINN: Lucille Miller's childhood home is a tidy white farmhouse surrounded on three sides by a massive mountaintop removal mine almost as large as Manhattan Island. Piles of dirt and rubble, 10 and 20 stories high, tower overhead. There's nothing left of the creek behind her house. It's covered with tons of dirt. No one lives here now, but Lucille and her husband, Leon, come back almost every weekend. And the family reunions, well, they can last for weeks.
Mr. LEON MILLER: They all like to come back home, and this is home. They climb the hills and...
Ms. LUCILLE MILLER: What's left.
Mr. MILLER: What's left of the hills. We don't have too many left. And they swim in the river, and we, of course, we're kind of afraid to let them do that now with the selenium, you know.
FINN: That's the mineral, selenium, a by-product of surface mining. A recent study found high levels of it in the river in front their house along with deformed salamanders with crooked spines and misplaced eyes. In a paper published this year, the EPA's own scientists found runoff from such mines contained high levels of hazardous chemicals. But in an about-face Tuesday, the EPA signed off on the Bush administration proposal to allow dirt and rocks to be dumped into certain streams.
Environmental lawyer Joe Lovett wasn't surprised. He says, in practice, coal companies and regulators have ignored mining rules for years.
Mr. JOE LOVETT (Environmental Lawyer): It seems ridiculous in one way, but really, it's a tragedy for this region. You know, our future is being taken from us by these mining companies. I understand that there are jobs at stake, but there are ways to get coal out of the ground that don't devastate the environment in the way that mountaintop removal mining does.
FINN: But Steve Walker, of mine supplier Walker Machinery, says alternatives such as underground mining are too expensive for many areas. In West Virginia, the mines employ more than 20,000 people, and it's one of the most important industries in the state. With the recession, he says it's no time to discuss the elimination of any mining.
Mr. STEVE WALKER (Walker Machinery): Right now, in talking to many of my customers, they're scared to death. It's already put a chill on investment because they do not know the direction this mining business is going to go in West Virginia.
FINN: Walker makes one more point: The ugly piles of rocks and dirt will someday be reclaimed. Most are planted with grasses and look more like the deserts of the American West than West Virginia. A few sites have been developed.
Mr. WALKER: Over the years, we've built a prison and golf course, schools, so it's like building a highway. It looks ugly when you're doing it, and 20, 25 years later it looks beautiful.
FINN: The Millers plan to stick around and see what becomes of the mine above their property. A few years ago, the mining company tried to force them to sell their land. But Lucille Miller and her family won a precedent-setting court case, which says they can't be forced out.
Ms. MILLER: Whatever they offered me for it, I wouldn't sell it. I wouldn't sell it for a million dollars or $50 million. I want this place, and I want it to stay here.
FINN: Bank of America announced this week it would no longer finance mountaintop removal mining, adding to the growing pressure on mining companies and President-elect Obama to change how mining is done in Appalachia. For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.
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