Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mountain streams on the losing end

On Monday December 1, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a rule change by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) that would allow the dumping of rocks, dirt and sludge from mountaintop removal in stream areas. The rule change essential exempts mining overburden (the rock, soil, and sludge removed to access coal in strip mines and mountain top removal) from the definition of "waste" that is prohibited from being dumped in seasonal and ephemeral streams.

This rule change has been eagerly sought by the coal mining industry, while opposed not only by environmental organizations, but also by top government officials in coal mining states such as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky Congressman Ben Chandler, and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. Grassroots citizens organizations such as "I love Mountains" and "Kentuckians for the Commonwealth" which include hundreds of coal county residents among their numbers have actively campaigned against this rule change.

This change sought by the Bush administration has already been approved by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The Department of Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining will make the change to the rule final in December after briefing members of Congress, and it will go into effect in another 30 days -- roughly about the time that the new Obama administration is sworn into office.

Administrative rule changes like this take time to develop. This particular rule change was first introduced in 2004. A complex process of hearings, comment periods, and reviews by other agencies (such as the EPA) are required before rule changes can occur. While the Department of Interior must brief members of Congress, there is no requirement of legislative approval. Consequently, it could take as long to undo this rule change (should the Obama administration make that a priority) as it did to create it. In the meantime, thousands of additional miles of streams in central Appalachia will join the more than 700 miles of streams that have already been buried due to lax enforcement of the existing rules.

The consequences of this rule change extend far beyond the central Appalachian mountains, to all the urban and suburban areas that are dependent upon river and stream fed lakes for their municipal drinking water.


E. R. Dunhill said...

Thanks for posting on this. Do you know if there are any stipulations about the mineralogy of the overburden? I'm concerned that debris containing pyrite would be dumped into even intermittent streams. (For unfamiliar readers, pyrite, commonly occurs in and around coal seams, and produces sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. I've seen a stream in PA devoid of any plants or animals, bounded by dead trees on either side, because of this contaminant.)

Sue said...

Regarding your question, there does not appear to be any restriction on what kind of "excess spoil" (the preferred term rather than "waste") created by surface mining can be place in stream courses. The existing rule and the description of how it will change can be found here:
As is often the case with bureaucratic rules the language is very dense and difficult to penetrate. Lip service is given to avoiding impacts on aquatic life, and evaluating alternatives to stream fills, but the key change that is problematic is that the 100 yard buffer zone prohibition will not apply if one is mining IN the water course. If the watercourse is within the mining permit area, then the buffer zone requirement no longer applies to it.