Adopted by the Reagan administration in 1983, the existing Stream Buffer Zone rule was designed to protect irreplaceable streams in the coal mining regions of Appalachia by prohibiting mining activities that disturb areas 100 feet of streams unless it can be proven that the activities will not harm water quality. The Bush administration is proposing to rewrite this Reagan-era rule to permit coal companies to bury and destroy streams, as long as the mining companies "minimize" the amount of waste dumped in streams "to the extent practical."
"The Bush administration states that a goal of its rulemaking proposal is to minimize the adverse environmental effects of mountaintop removal valley fills. Yet it is proposing to legalize the coal companies' practice of burying streams, an activity not even allowed under the existing rule," said Sarah Wilhoite, Policy Associate for Earthjustice. "Replacing a rule that forbids destroying streams with one that sanctions the practice cannot seriously be considered 'minimizing' harm."
"The proposal to eliminate the Stream Buffer Zone rule would maximize the harm caused by mountaintop removal by repealing an important and long-standing limit on coal mining activities that harm streams," said Joan Mulhern, Senior Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. "The Office of Surface Mining is flat-out lying when it says that it's new rulemaking would 'minimize' the harm caused by coal mining to streams. Anyone who takes two minutes to compare the 1983 rule against the new proposal can see that for themselves. This is hardly a brain-teaser."
According to the Bush administration's own draft Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal coal mining released in May 2003, well over 1200 miles of streams have already been buried by mountaintop removal mining waste in the last decade. These same studies found that, without additional restrictions on mountaintop removal mining, at least another 1000 miles of streams will be added to this toll within the next decade.
"Nothing about the Bush administration's rulemaking proposal is worse than the irreversible harm it will have on the environment and people of Appalachia," said Mulhern. "But it is especially galling that the Office of Surface Mining claims that this is about 'minimizing' harm, or 'clarifying' existing rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. The administration is deliberately mischaracterizing what it is doing in an attempt to hide the effects of its proposal. Any schoolchild could tell you that burying streams under a 900 foot deep rubble pile is worse for the streams than a 100 foot buffer between a stream and the mine."
Studies released recently by the Bush administration as part of the EIS confirm that, without additional environmental restrictions, mountaintop removal will wipe out over 2200 square miles of mountains, streams and forests in the region by the end of this decade is additional limits are not adopted.
"Mountaintop removal has the potential to destroy an area nearly the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The attention given to that national treasure should be given to this treasure as well," said Wilhoite. "The Appalachian region is indisputably recognized by ecologists as an area of great biological significance that deserves national protection. That is what Congress wanted when the strip mining law was passed twenty-five years ago. We are just talking about keeping the existing limits that forbid coal mining waste to destroy streams."
According to Earthjustice, the proposed change to the Stream Buffer Zone rule is the second major repeal of long-standing environmental regulations pursued by the Bush administration to benefit mountaintop removal coal mining. In May 2002, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers eliminated a 25 year-old ban on dumping industrial waste in streams in order to head off citizen lawsuits aimed at enforcing Clean Water Act limits on this form of mining's destruction of streams.
"The Bush administration is engaged in a serial effort to thwart any attempt by the people of Appalachia to exercise their rights under national environmental laws to protect themselves and their communities from the widespread damage caused by mountaintop removal," said Mulhern. "First the Clean Water Act, now the strip mining law. This administration wants to wipe out any environmental safeguards that stand between the coal companies and the citizens who are trying to defend their natural heritage -- the streams, mountains and communities of Appalachia."
For additional information, including links to the Federal Register notice of the proposed buffer zone rule change, click here.