Saturday, October 18, 2008

Feds to ease stream rule for mining mountains, but both presidential candidates have other ideas

UPDATES: For an editorial in The New York Times that explains the stream-buffer-zone issue, click here. For detailed reports on the conference and a ground-level, panoramic photo of the mine at right, click here. (Photo of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia by Theresa Burris of southwest Virginia's Radford University, via Southwings flying service)

As the Bush administration took another step that would ease mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal, there were repeated indications this week that a new president will restrict it.

A leading foe of mountaintop mining predicted that Barack Obama would, as president, issue regulations that would largely outlaw it. A John McCain representative reiterated that the Republican nominee would end the practice, but said he wasn't sure how. An Obama representative noted that the Democrat favors a legislative solution, but he didn't rule out other measures.

At the same meeting, a key congressman on the issue said he didn't favor any changes in the law. But he also said, in response to facts cited in a question, that state and federal regulators have misinterpreted the law in a way that allows mountaintop mining without the development required in such cases. Here are the details:

Yesterday, the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining issued an environmental impact statement supporting its plan to allow dumping of rock and dirt from mines into perennial or intermittent streams, which the industry says is necessary in mountaintop-removal mining. Current regulations prohibit mining activities within 100 feet of such streams, but OSM has allowed valley fills to bury such streams and ephemeral streams, which flow only after precipitation. It would still require mines to avoid streams "to the extent possible."

Mountaintop removal, which occurs on the rugged Cumberland-Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, was a major topic this week in Roanoke at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which started with a seminar, "Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America," co-sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, the leading litigator against mountaintop mining, said at the seminar that "Valley fills need to be stopped" by adminstrative regulation, and "I think the Obama administration is going to give us what we need." While some of his allies want to do that by changing the federal strip-mine law, Lovett said, "My hope is that Congress does not get involved." He said in a follow-up interview that he wants to avoid Congress because "I don't think Congress will do it." He noted that two key West Virginia Democrats, Robert Byrd and Nick Joe Rahall, are chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.

During the conference's closing panel today, Rahall, right, he does not favor changes in the law. He said the variance it allows for mountaintop removal has provided much-needed flat land for development in Central Appalachia. For such a variance, the law calls for a higher or better use of the land than before mining. About 60 percent of the mined land in the region in the last three years has been placed in unmanaged grassland, Virginia Tech forester Jim Burger said at another conference session yesterday. Asked how such land could be considered a higher or better use than a mixed mesophytic forest with productive hardwood trees, Rahall first replied as if he didn't understand the question, but when it was repeated, he said, "It's a regulatory misinterpretation of the law." Asked earlier about OSM's proposed repeal of the stream-buffer rule, he said he would leave that issue to the courts and the regulators.

Rahall appeared with David Jenkins, government affairs director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which supports McCain, and David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club, which is supporting Obama. McCain said last month that he wants to end mountaintop removal, and Obama also said he does not support the practice, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported last month. Yesterday, asked how their candidates would end mountaintop mining, Jenkins said one option for McCain would be the "stream saver" bill in Congress, which would outlaw valley fills that bury streams. Hamilton noted that Obama supports the bill but said there may be other options.

Watch The Rural Blog and for more reports on discussions about coal at the SEJ conference, which concludes Sunday with readings by authors including Wendell Berry, Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina and Penny Loeb, all of whom have written about coal mining and Appalachia. The conference's opening gala featured West Virginia singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea, whose latest CD is "Coal." She sang "Cool of the Day" by Jean Ritchie and "Coming of the Roads" by Billy Edd Wheeler. A look at the lyrics will tell you why.

No comments: