Whitesburg KY

Just baby steps on mining reform

Listening to Obama administration officials struggle to explain how their new “interagency action plan” is going to reduce the coal industry’s harm to Appalachia’s environment, we were reminded that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining is still without a director.

And it shows.

The administration is taking some commendable baby steps toward restoring the rule of environmental law in the eastern coalfields and seems to have a genuine desire to do the right thing, just not strong enough approaches to doing it.

For example, a new memorandum of understanding was touted as a way to ensure more thorough and transparent consideration of the impacts of strip-mining on water before the government issues a mining permit.

That sounds good, except the memo does not give the Environmental Protection Agency enough time to conduct adequate reviews, especially of the 108 mine-permit requests already pending from coal companies. The practical effect could be, not a slowdown in mountaintop removal, but the expedited permitting process promised by the Bush administration.

Also, sorely missing from last week’s announcement was a commitment to restore the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to what it was before being undermined by almost three decades of policy and regulatory concessions by OSM to the coal industry.

The law enacted by Congress in 1977 never intended that hundreds of miles of streams would be buried by mining spoil dumped into valleys and hollows in huge loose fills of rock and dirt.

The law required compacted, constructed fills; that mountains be restored to their original height and shape, and that there be little lag time between mining and reclamation.

The law allowed exceptions to these requirements only in rare instances when there was a specific post-mining plan for the newly leveled terrain.

Reinvigorating the federal surface mining law — and the agency that’s supposed to enforce it — is cr itical to minimizing the environmental effects of mountaintop removal and other forms of mining that have buried hundreds of miles of small streams under tons of rock and dirt, degrading water quality and aggravating flooding.

Enforcing the federal law would require a more labor intensive approach to mining, creating jobs in the coalfields.

OSM — and the Obama administration — desperately need an independent, knowledgeable leader, s omeone who knows the l ay of the land in Kentucky and West Virginia, both physically and politically.

Until Obama puts such a leader at OSM’s helm, the administration’s good intentions will ring hollow.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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