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The Steep Cost of Cleaner, Cheaper Coal

Environment: The White House, activists are clashing over mountaintop mining.


ARTIE, W.Va. — The cluster of forested peaks that soared skyward behind Donald "Joe" Barnett's house is gone. So are the streams that flowed through them. Miners sheared several hundred feet off the mountaintops to expose rich veins of coal and then piled up the leftover rock and dirt in a nearby valley to make a naked, flat-topped, 400-foot plateau.

This so-called valley fill is just one of hundreds across the rugged terrain of Appalachia that have covered more than 1,000 miles of streams in a decade-long boom of "mountaintop removal" that has permanently changed the topography in the southwest corner of West Virginia.

To the mining companies, demolishing mountains and filling valleys is the only economical way to get the state's cleaner-burning coal, which generates affordable electricity to millions of homes and high-paying jobs for thousands of workers.

And the Bush administration, which counts boosting energy production among its priorities, is poised to use its regulatory powers to help the miners continue the practice.

Many Appalachia residents whose lives are nestled into the quiet hollows aren't sure how much more of the unmistakable environmental transformation they can take. The residents have sued to stop the mining, contending that it strips the region of its coal, as well as its unique charm. Filling the valleys with the dirt and rock, they say, erases streams, threatens wildlife, sullies drinking water and causes dangerous flooding. Perhaps even more threatening, millions of gallons of sludge from processing the coal is stored permanently in huge dams near their communities.

"It's the biggest localized environmental disaster in the country," said lawyer Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "But it's ignored because it keeps coal prices low."

Lovett represented a group of West Virginians who filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1990s, charging that large valley fills violated the federal Surface Mining and Clean Water acts. The corps has routinely issued permits that allow coal companies to bury streams and valleys in the unwanted dirt and rock, even though Clean Water Act regulations do not give it clear authority to do so.

A federal judge ruled against the corps in 1999, but an appeals court voided his decision on jurisdictional grounds, leaving unresolved the practice's legality and putting the industry on edge.

A newer lawsuit filed by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an environmental group, challenges the corps' right to permit a huge mountaintop project in Kentucky that would fill more than 20 valleys and cover more than six miles of streams. That suit is now pending before the same federal judge, and it could bring mountaintop mining to a halt by making large valley fills illegal.

The Bush administration wants to make sure that doesn't happen. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said as early as this month the administration planned to rewrite regulations to allow dirt displaced by mining to be dumped in waterways. This likely would undermine the pending legal challenge and legitimize valley fills.

Under the Clean Water Act and current corps regulations, acceptable "fill materials"--those allowed in waterways--include rock, sand and dirt displaced by development, roadways and erosion protection. The act and the rules specifically exclude the disposal of any material that's primarily considered waste--such as the dirt displaced by mining.

The Bush administration plans to strip that exclusion from the law by redefining what is acceptable fill material.

Officially, the Bush administration refused to confirm the details of the prospective rule change, which was originally proposed by the Clinton administration. But two senior officials, asking not to be named, defended the decision, saying it would bring the corps in line with the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of "fill material."

Administration officials and coal industry representatives describe the change as a bureaucratic clarification.

That's not how local residents or environmentalists see it.

Lovett, who is also representing the Kentucky plaintiffs, says the administration's move is the equivalent of changing the speed limit when you get caught speeding.

Environmentalists call it one of the Bush administration's biggest rollbacks of the Clean Water Act, opening the nation's waterways to all sorts of wastes. The administration has made a series of actions that weaken environmental protections at the behest of industry, including lowering efficiency standards for air conditioners, reducing hurdles for hard rock mining and backing away from the decade-old commitment to prevent a net loss of wetlands.

Even 12 GOP House members wrote President Bush late last month urging him not to make this "ill-advised and dangerous" rules change.

The change also would affect hard rock mining in the West--most notably in Alaska and Arizona.

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