The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today signed off on a controversial 11th hour repeal of the stream buffer zone rule, an environmental law which since 1983 has prohibited surface coal mining activities within 100 feet of flowing streams.
The repeal of this important protection clears the way for an even greater expansion of mountaintop removal mining -- the aptly named process of mining coal by blasting off the tops of mountains, and bulldozing the crumbled peaks into adjoining valleys.
"The EPA's decision is a slap in the face of Appalachian communities, which have already endured enough injustice from mountaintop removal," said Vernon Haltom, co-director of the West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch. "My home and thousands of others are now in greater jeopardy."
EPA's approval comes in spite of a recent wave of criticism directed generally at the outgoing administration's 'midnight regulations' and specifically at the repeal of the stream buffer zone rule.
"Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to live up to its name. With less than two months left in power, the Bush administration is determined to cement its legacy as having the worst environmental record in history," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice. "This is a sad day for all people who are thankful for the clear mountain streams and stately summits of the Appalachians."
The change, which is being proposed by Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM), had to receive written approval from EPA before it could be finalized. That last hurdle was cleared today. Opponents of the repeal of the stream buffer rule argued that EPA could not legally approve the rule change because doing so conflicts with EPA's duties under the Clean Water Act.
"The EPA's own scientists have concluded that dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality," said Ed Hopkins, director of Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. "By signing off on a rule to eliminate a critical safeguard for streams, the EPA has abdicated its responsibility and left the local communities that depend on these waters at risk."
Last month, top decision makers in the coal mining states of Kentucky and Tennessee urged EPA to block the rule change. Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, and Reps. Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth each wrote letters to EPA head Stephen Johnson asking him not to sign off on the repeal of the stream buffer zone rule. And Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen also weighed in with EPA, voicing concerns on behalf of his state.
"The regions most affected by this rule, in the Appalachian Coal Belt, are some of the poorest in the nation," said Lane Boldman with the Sierra Club Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter. "And all they are asking for is some fundamental protection of their waterways so that they can continue to fish and swim downstream."
In October, a landmark nationwide poll on mountaintop removal mining found that two out of three likely voters opposed the rule change. Upon hearing that "more than 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia already have been buried or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining," fully 85 percent of voters said they were concerned about the effects of this mining practice.
The practice of mountaintop removal mining has long been opposed by many residents of Appalachia. The poll, the first to test voters' views of this practice nationwide, showed that voters in every region of the country are similarly against mountaintop removal mining.
"We are surely thankful the Bush administration will soon be gone. We are hopeful that once Obama is president, he will ban mountaintop removal entirely, and Bush's last minutes sneaky moves won't end up destroying even more of our streams, and by extension, our mountains, our communities and our culture," said Vivian Stockman project coordinator for the Huntington, W.Va.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Since coal companies began the practice of mountaintop removal mining in earnest, the topography of Appalachia has been forever altered: More than 400 mountaintops have been stripped of trees and flattened, 1,200 miles of mountain streams buried under rubble. Already the lush forests which once cloaked 387,000 acres of the world's most ancient mountain range have been replaced by apocalyptic lunar landscapes. If industry is allowed to proceed at the current rate, an area the size of Delaware will have been lost.
"With this rule change, the outgoing Bush is poised to eliminate forever more of our headwater streams -- the very lifeblood of our mountains and the source of healthy water resources that future generations will depend upon," said Cindy Rank, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy's mining chair.
Read the survey findings (PDF)