Despite best intentions, SMCRA has never managed to live up to its potential as a tool for protecting important areas plagued by some of the worst types of coal mining in the country. When it passed the law in 1977, Congress clearly recognized that balancing environmental protection while providing for the country's need for coal would require strong guidance and oversight to assure that areas would be protected from the adverse effects of strip mining.
But as enforcement was handed over to the states, and staff and budget cuts came to the Office of Surface Mining, the regions that SMCRA was meant to protect were decimated and activities it was designed to prohibit increased, all at the urging of the mining industry.
"When OSM first came to town in the late 1970's, it was the powerful force intent on reigning in the abuses of the coal industry," said Cindy Rank, board member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "Despite the good intentions of many dedicated staff members, OSM currently offers more help to the mining industry than it does to the citizens and communities where coal is mined. All too often, the 'balance' intended under the Act no longer exists. The scales of justice are once again tipped in favor of coal at any cost over protecting people and the environment."
Case in point: the so-called "Stream Buffer Zone Rule" -- a Reagan-era rule that prevents coal mining activities from occurring within 100 feet of a stream, creating a "buffer zone" of protection. This past summer, OSM introduced changes that exempt coal mining waste from this important rule to allow mega-mountaintop removal mining operations to dump thousands of tons of waste rock and other debris directly into nearby streams and headwaters in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and parts of southern Virginia.
"The Bush administration has unabashedly been rolling back environmental protections to benefit the coal industry, and repealing the stream buffer is one of the most egregious moves yet," said Joan Mulhern, Senior Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice. "OSM has ignored the government's studies showing widespread, irreversible damage to streams and headwaters in the region that will result from this rule change. They refused to study what would happen if they actually enforced the law as it currently stands. Instead, handouts to the mountaintop removal mining industry remained their top priority."