Monday, April 27, 2009

Feds will ask courts to erase 'eleventh hour' Bush rule aimed at easing mountaintop-removal mining

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today he will ask the Justice Department to go to court to withdraw a rule the Bush administration enacted in its final weeks to clear regulatory and judicial obstacles to mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal.

Salazar called the rule "bad policy" and said it allowed "the cheapest and most convenient disposal option" for material removed from mountaintops and steep ridges, Ayesha Rascoe and Tom Doggett of Reuters report. "Under the Bush rule, coal mine operators can dispose of excess mountaintop debris in and within 100 feet of nearby streams streams whenever alternative options are deemed 'not reasonably possible'." It replaced a rule "that allowed dumping within 100 feet of a stream if it would not 'adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream'." (Read more)

Salazar said at a press conference, "We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports." An Interior news release called the rule an "eleventh hour" measure. For Salazar's full remarks, click here. For a recording of his presser, click here. His department includes the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.

In asking a court to declare the Bush rule "legally defective," Salazar and Justice are trying to avoid a lengthy and cumbersome rulemaking process, but also risking the possibility that federal courts will decline to act. The legal action will start in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The environmental group Earthjustice was not impressed. It told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, "Unless this announcement is accompanied by a firm commitment to enforce the law as it applies to mountaintop removal and valley fills, it’s meaningless. Secretary Salazar’s comments at the press conference lacked such a commitment; he made it sound as if this action would return the situation to the status quo before the Bush 11th-hour change to the stream buffer zone rule. But the history of the stream buffer zone rule is that it hasn’t been enforced." Ward is updating on his Coal Tattoo blog. He says Interior officials "hedged about whether they plan to actually enforce the previous version in a manner that would limit mountaintop removal." For reaction from Interior and the coal industry, via Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, click here.

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