Environmental groups sue over rule changes governing mine waste

Environmental groups went to court Monday to challenge a Bush administration rule change that they fear will lead to coal companies burying more Appalachian streams with excess rock and dirt from surface mining.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on a change in a 1983 rule that prohibited such dumping within 100 feet of streams.

"This administration chose its allegiance, that of protecting the economic interests of the coal industry over protecting our mountains, streams and watershed," Kathy Selvage of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards said in a release.

The coal industry has argued that the rule change merely clarified the intent of the federal surface-mining rule by allowing rock and dirt to be placed in headwater areas where water flows only when it rains.

The issue has split Kentucky lawmakers. Gov. Steve Beshear had argued that the rule not be changed; a group of legislators, some from coal counties, had taken the opposite view.

Other groups involved in Monday's suit include the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The stream rule change could be undone by the incoming Obama administration, but that process could take months.

States had applied the rule unevenly, and federal enforcement was lax. Environmentalists point to government figures that show that more than 500 miles of streams were diverted or buried between 2001 and 2005.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader