Remarkably, the Bush administration is attempting to portray this very significant change in federal law as a "clarification" in a public relations attempt to downplay its importance, according to Earthjustice. However, the proposed rewrite of the "buffer zone" rule is a dramatic departure from the existing rule’s language and is inconsistent with interpretations of the rule advanced by previous administrations before federal courts.
"Only the Bush administration, which calls more air pollution "Clear Skies" and clear cutting trees "Healthy Forests," would call this decision to allow coal companies to destroy more streams a "clarification," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. "It is a lie and it is an insult to the people of Appalachia and anyone who cares about the fate of America’s environment."
Today’s Federal Register contains a proposed rulemaking that would rewrite – and, according to Earthjustice, eviscerate – a long-standing federal regulation that prohibits coal mining activities from disturbing or destroying flowing streams, known as the "buffer zone" rule. This regulation, adopted during the Reagan administration, prevents federal and state agencies from issuing permits for coal mining activities that would disturb areas within l00 feet of streams, unless the permitting agency affirmatively confirms that the activities will not adversely affect water quality. In contrast, the proposed new rule would allow coal companies to dump their wastes directly on top of streams.
"This action marks with an exclamation point the Bush administration’s complete disregard not only for the nation’s natural resources, but also for the public’s concern about one of the most blatant examples of environmental and social destruction occurring in this country today," said Mulhern.
"Just about six hours after the comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal closed, the Bush administration drops this bomb -- essentially thumbing its arrogant nose at the over 70,000 people who commented," said Vivian Stockman, organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "Bush is further morphing Lincoln's ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people into government of, by and for the energy industries."
"Only yesterday, the comment period ended on the five-year-old effort to review the environmental and social consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining on Appalachia," added Mulhern. "Tens of thousands of Americans objected to this form of ecological genocide during the comment period. Yet today, without even bothering to pretend to consider or even review these comments, the Bush administration made clear its intent to favor the coal industry and ignore the public’s concerns."
Until today, the position of the federal government, as expressed in briefs to federal courts, has been that the "buffer zone" rule does in fact protect streams from mining activities -- including waste disposal -- that would harm those streams. Today’s proposal represents the first time in the 25 years since the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was adopted in 1977 that any administration has even suggested that the law would allow coal companies to actually destroy streams by burying them with their wastes.
Adopted by the Reagan administration in 1983, the buffer zone rule strikes a balance between environmental protection and coal production. The buffer zone was designed to protect irreplaceable streams in the coal mining regions of Appalachia. According the draft EIS, well over 1200 miles of streams have been buried by mountaintop removal mining waste in the last decade alone.
"The EIS studies confirmed the obvious fact that blowing up mountains and burying streams has enormous and irreversible environmental consequences," said Earthjustice’s Mulhern. "It is astonishing, even for the Bush administration, that their response to this information is to further weaken the environmental limits on mountaintop removal mining."