Bush Agencies Plan to Revive Abandoned Anti-Clean Water Act Rule to Benefit Coal Industry

"This proposed rule change is one of the worst things that could happen to the protection of waters in this country," said Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice's senior legislative counsel.


Ken Goldman


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In response to a proposed change to Clean Water Act regulations that would benefit the coal industry, Earthjustice and three other national environmental groups today sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the three Bush administration agencies involved in the rulemaking. The groups are seeking records of communications between coal industry lobbyists and federal agencies about the plans to weaken Clean Water Act rules that would threaten streams and wetlands in Appalachia and around the country. The FOIA request was sent to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of the Interior, and Environmental Protection Agency.

The FOIA request was motivated by recent reports that the Bush administration is putting the coal companies’ rule change on a fast track and the environmental groups’ concern that coal industry influence may be motivating the weakening of the rules.

The proposed regulation is designed to allow coal companies to dump mountaintop removal mining waste into streams, forever destroying these waters. During mountaintop removal, the tops of mountains are literally blown off in order to get at the coal seams below. What once was the top of the mountain – millions of tons of waste rock and dirt – is dumped into adjacent valleys. These valley-fills bury streams and aquatic habitat under piles of rubble hundreds of feet high. Already in West Virginia alone, nearly 1000 miles of rivers and streams have been permitted for this type of destruction.

“This proposed rule change is one of the worst things that could happen to the protection of waters in this country,” said Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice’s senior legislative counsel. “There is nothing more inconsistent with the purpose of the Clean Water Act than permitting waters to be permanently buried under tons of industrial wastes – yet that is exactly what this rule would allow.”

The proposed rule change was first published in the Federal Register in April 2000. However, after more than 17,000 individuals and groups submitted comments opposed to weakening the Clean Water Act, the rulemaking was abandoned by the Clinton administration.

“The Bush administration is considering breathing new life into a proposal killed by the last administration,” said Mulhern. “We think that this is a very bad idea that is better left on the trash heap of history.”

Earthjustice and the other environmental groups want to know whether and to what extent the coal industry has used its influence with the Bush administration to press for the clean water rule change. The groups noted that coal companies and related interests donated heavily to the Bush-Cheney campaign, and former lawyers and lobbyists for these industries now hold top posts in the administration, including the agencies working on the new regulations.

“The Bush administration’s pockets are lined with coal money. The political appointees key to deciding this issue built careers as lobbyists and executives for coal interests,” said Maria Weidner, policy advocate for Earthjustice. “The stage is set for King Coal to have its way with the Clean Water Act over the public’s protests.”

With Lehman Brothers – owners of Peabody Coal – and Arch Coal listed as top contributors, the coal mining industry gave $107,821 to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Peabody Coal is the world’s largest coal mining company; Arch Coal is among the highest-profile companies responsible for the disastrous practice of mountaintop removal mining. The combined total of contributions from electric utilities and coal mining interests was $530,560.

Deputy Secretary of Interior Steven Griles is a former lobbyist for the coal industry; among his clients were the National Mining Association and the Edison Electric Institute. During his confirmation process, the NMA enthusiastically expressed support for Mr. Griles’s nomination in the Denver Post, saying, “He’s an ally of the industry…this will hopefully be a breath of fresh air.” The NMA actively supports mountaintop removal coal mining and the effort to weaken Clean Water Act rules. Mike Parker, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works – the lead agency for the rule change – was recently a lobbyist for CSX, the railroad giant that is actively supporting the rule change because they haul much of the coal mined by mountaintop removal.

While the proposed rule change is being motivated by coal companies and its allies to promote more mountaintop removal, it will also allow other industries to dump their wastes in waters, threatening wetlands, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and coastal areas nationwide. The rule change would eliminate an existing prohibition against allowing waste to be used as fill and allow the Army Corps of Engineers to permit all kinds of solid wastes to be used to bury waters. These wastes could include not only mountaintop removal coal mining wastes, but also hardrock mining wastes, construction and demolition debris, coal ash wastes, old tires, car parts, discarded appliances – basically, any solid wastes not currently regulated under other sections of the Clean Water Act.

“We hope President Bush and his agencies will take the time to learn why this ill-conceived, anti-clean water proposal was abandoned by the last administration. We hope the President will do what is in the public interest – not the coal companies’ interests,” Mulhern added.

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