Whitesburg KY

EPA backs rule easing way for dumping mining waste

The Environmental Protection Agency, rejecting pleas from state governors and environmental groups, signed off this week on making it easier to dump mountaintop mining waste near rivers and streams.

But the EPA said Tuesday it did so because it secured additional safeguards.

The governors of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as other lawmakers from those states, had urged EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to block the rule — which would rewrite a regulation enacted in 1983 that bars mining companies from dumping huge waste piles within 100 feet of temporary streams when it could diminish water quality and quantity.

Under a provision of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act — promulgated largely by the Interior Department — the EPA must concur in writing to any mining regulations that could affect air and water quality.

The Bush administration needs the EPA’s approval to make the rule final. The regulation has already cleared the White House, and officials with the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining were expected to brief members of Congress later this week.

If the rule is made final 30 days before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in, it would be difficult to change.

The EPA, in a statement issued Tuesday, said it backed the rule because the Interior Department made improvements to the regulation. The EPA pushed for and won a small concession that clarifies that any mining activity in streams cannot violate state or federal water quality standards. Mining officials wanted to remove the language, according to the agency’s Dec. 2 letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

The EPA also said the rule does more to ensure that companies minimize their waste and consider alternatives before dumping it in streams.

A spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining would not confirm how the regulations changed or the EPA’s rule. But earlier this year the office said the rules improved environmental protection.

Environmentalists, however, saw little improvement in the rule Tuesday.

“They’re not adding anything new,” said Joan Mulhern, an attorney for Earthjustice. “They’re just trying to confuse the public and make it sound like they’re a

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