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Mining Damage in Appalachia Extensive, U.S. Finds

'Mountaintop removal' for coal has destroyed 7% of forests and 724 miles of streams. The administration response meets tough criticism.

May 30, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For two decades, mining companies have extracted coal from Appalachia's steep peaks by lopping off the tops of mountains and discarding the leftover rock and earth in stream valleys.

Bush administration officials reported Thursday that the practice had cost the region 7% of its forests and 724 miles of its streams. To reduce future harm, the administration proposed better coordinating the state and federal agencies that regulate "mountaintop removal mining" and developing better procedures for monitoring its effect.

The proposal was "designed specifically to ensure more effective protection for human health and the environment while enabling the nation to continue to receive the energy benefits of cleaner-burning Appalachian coal," the five agencies involved in producing the draft said in a statement.

Environmental groups condemned the proposal, which they said would do little if anything to alter a mining practice that they say is ravaging Appalachia.

"It continues the corporate agenda of turning the area into a national sacrifice zone," said Teri Blanton, chairwoman of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an environmental and social justice group.

The coal industry welcomed the proposal. National Mining Assn. President Jack Gerard described it as a "constructive road map" for future coal operations.

Mountaintop removal mining enables coal companies to extract the seams of coal buried between layers of rock and soil in the steep mountains of Appalachia. Massive machinery scrapes off the top several hundred feet of a mountain to reveal the coal. The excess rock and dirt are packed into the valleys, sometimes covering up the headwaters of streams, which are important ecologically.

In recent years, grass-roots groups have sued the government over the practice. The government agreed to prepare the environmental impact statement as part of a 1998 settlement of one of those suits, Bragg vs. Robertson, which was filed by West Virginia residents and environmental groups. These groups expected the government to thoroughly study the environmental damage and propose tough measures to prevent more damage.

"We anticipated those studies would show harm and they did," said Joe Lovett, one of the lawyers in the case.

"What is remarkable is that those studies were used to loosen the reins on mountaintop removal mining rather than tighten them."

An earlier draft prepared by the Clinton administration had contemplated capping how many acres could be filled with mining wastes.

"Real, concrete, specific, objective limitations: That's what everyone thought we were going to get," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental law group. "They're missing in action from the Bush administration proposal."

As part of the 1998 settlement, the government agreed that while it was studying the problem, it would require more vigorous environmental reviews when companies proposed filling more then 250 acres with mining debris.

Now Lovett and his clients fear the administration's proposal will cost them even that measure of control.

To avoid time-consuming environmental reviews, coal companies have limited their proposals to meet the 250-acre limit. The total area of Appalachian watersheds covered by valley fills was 50% less in the five years since 1998 than the five previous years, according to federal officials.

But administration officials argued that their proposal would protect the valuable ecology of the region more effectively than a cap because federal officials would decide on a case-by-case basis whether a project required additional environmental review.

In some cases, small valley fills might cover up a valuable trout stream, and the new case-by-case review would be more likely to require thorough environmental review, said Mike Robinson, a spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining, an agency of the Interior Department.

In addition to the Office of Surface Mining, the other agencies involved in the draft were the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Officials said they did not know whether more or fewer projects would undergo thorough environmental reviews under their proposal than now. They also said they could not estimate how many miles of streams would be filled under their proposal.

"We can't project the future," Robinson said.

"When and where people coal-mine is a business decision."

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