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Mining stream buffer rule won’t change before 2011




CHARLESTON, W.Va.

The Obama administration says reversing a last-minute Bushera surface mining regulation criticized as too friendly to coal companies is going to take at least another year.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement plans to start the process of replacing the regulation by mid-November and hopes to complete the job by early 2011, acting director Glenda Owens said in a court filing. The document popped up in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the Bush administration’s stream buffer regulation, which was approved shortly before Obama took office.

The regulation rewrote rules adopted in 1983 by the Reagan administration that barred mining companies from dumping material removed from surface opera- tions within 100 feet of streams if the disposal harmed water quality or quantity.

Instead, the revisions required mine operators to keep debris piles as small as possible, but allows them to skirt the buffer requirement if compliance is determined to be impossible.

Disagreement over the regulation is at the heart of the ongoing fight over mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia, Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.

Coal companies say the practice of blasting and scraping away ridges to expose multiple coal seams provides cheap electricity for millions and supports thousands of high-paying jobs. Environmental groups and other opponents contend the regulation allows coal companies to bury streams rather than buffer them. And they argue that the Interior Department isn’t acting quickly enough.

“The Department of the Interior is spinning its wheels,” the Sierra Club’s Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement. “Appalachia’s mountains, streams and communities continue to be destroyed.”

In West Virginia, Coal River Mountain Watch said the Interior Department is reluctant to address mountaintop mining.

“Fixing the stream buffer zone rule remains a key component in the complex effort to end mountaintop removal coal mining,” Lorelei Scarboro said in a statement.

The National Mining Association, on the other hand, criticized the Sierra Club.

“The Sierra Club is essentially demanding the government dictate policy and dispense entirely with public comment on a rule that would have far-reaching economic implications,” NMA spokesman Luke Popovich said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Kendra Barkoff, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s press secretary, said the department is going to develop a sound rule following the process laid out by the law and based on science and public input.

“Secretary Salazar is not going to take shortcuts,” Barkoff said in a statement. “That rulemaking process does take some time, but we are moving forward as expeditiously as possible.”

Under Obama, OSM has agreed with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to work more closely on reviewing surface coal mining permits in the East. At issue is mountaintop mining’s effect on water quality and the environment. The new administration also has begun cracking down on the practice. For instance, the EPA recently decided to delay approval of 79 coal mine permits in the region to allow for additional scrutiny. Coal mines in the West and Midwest have not been targeted for the same scrutiny.


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