The Obama administration is moving to tighten a coal-mining rule loosened by his predecessor, but it might not be enough to satisfy environmentalists.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday that the 11th-hour "stream buffer zone rule" issued by the Bush administration in December is defective. Salazar said he would ask a federal court in Washington to reinstitute a 1983 Reagan-era rule.
The 1983 rule prohibited dumping of fill from mountaintop removal mining within 100 feet of a stream. Environmentalists argue, however, that it was not properly enforced, allowing hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams to be buried or diverted.
The Bush rule said mining waste could be placed near streams if the alternative was considerably more expensive.
"We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and the natural habitat and the species it supports," Salazar said.
State Rep. Hubert Collins, one of several Kentucky legislators who urged the Bush administration to loosen the rule, said Monday's action would raise the price of coal and spell economic disaster in Eastern Kentucky.
"The coal industry is the only thing keeping the economy going right now in Eastern Kentucky," he said. "I don't think people think about coal when they turn their lights on. It's sad that people don't have any feelings for our economy."
Joan Mulhern of the environmental group Earthjustice said returning to the old rule would be meaningless unless accompanied by a commitment to enforce the law.
"The history of the stream buffer zone rule is that it hasn't been enforced," Mulhern said. "This gets us nowhere if the stream zone buffer is not enforced to prohibit mountaintop removal and valley fills."
In a similar vein, the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth welcomed Salazar's move but suggested that a return to the old rule is not enough.
"We hope that this announcement leads to the full and fair enforcement of the law," the statement said. "It's not too much to ask that a law in place since 1983 be enforced."
Todd Bailey, a KFTC member who lives in Hueysville in Floyd County and has a mountaintop-removal mine behind his home, said, "It's a great day for the fragile ecosystem of the Appalachians as well as the quality of life for the people who live here."
The Sierra Club noted that Salazar said his move would not end mountaintop removal mining, adding that "we look forward to working with the Obama Administration on comprehensive steps to end this destructive practice before it's too late."
A statement from the Interior Department said that if the court accepts Salazar's request, the federal Office of Surface Mining would "issue guidance" to states on how to apply the 1983 rule. It also said that OSM will solicit comments on a new rule that would address ambiguities in the current rule while making sure the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is coordinated with the Clean Water Act.
Len Peters, Kentucky's Energy and Environment secretary, said that addressing ambiguities and differences in interpretation "will benefit all parties."
"We look forward to working with the Obama administration on this and other issues related to coal mining to ensure we develop our coal resources responsibly while working to protect jobs and grow our economy," he said.
Rep. Ben Chandler, who had objected to the Bush rule change, commended Salazar "for taking this major action to protect our environment."
Under President Obama, a number of environmental rules have been revised, including at least two involving coal mining.
Last month, the EPA signaled that it was taking a stronger role in new permits for mountaintop removal mines.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said her agency would inspect permits, using "the best science" and following "the letter of the law."
Before that, the EPA had appeared to acquiesce to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in granting permits.
Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3319.