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Obama Moves to Scrap Bush Mountaintop Mining Rule

The Obama administration today announced plans to abandon a controversial last-minute Bush-era rule that made it easier for mining companies to fill valleys and streams with the debris from their mountain-topping operations.

From an Interior Department statement:

Under the Bush rule, coal mine operators are able to dispose of excess mountaintop spoil in perennial and intermittent streams and within 100 feet of those streams whenever alternative options are deemed “not reasonably possible.” Disposal into streambeds is permissible when alternatives are considered “unreasonable,” which occurs under the Bush rule whenever the cost of pursuing an alternative “is substantially greater” than normal costs.

The Bush rule replaced a rule that had been on the books since the Reagan era rule of 1983. The Reagan era rule provides greater protection for communities and habitat by allowing the dumping of overburden within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream only upon finding that such activities “will not adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.

Ken Salazar, who heads the Interior Department, is directing the Justice Department to ask a federal judge to vacate the rule because he says it’s “legally defective.”

“In its last weeks in office, the Bush Administration pushed through a rule that allows coal mine operators to dump mountaintop fill into streambeds if it’s found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option,” Salazar said in a statement. “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 natural habitat and the species it supports.”

Yet no one is under the delusion that the change will end the practice of mountaintop mining, in which companies blow apart the tops of mountains to reach the coal seams within, often pushing the soil, rock and debris into adjacent stream valleys. Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, issued a statement Monday applauding the administration’s move, but warning that much remains to be done to protect the ecosystems and communities near mining operations.

“Restoring the previous stream buffer zone regulation is one component in the fight to end mountaintop removal coal mining,” Hitt said. “But with the explosives and bulldozers standing by, it will take tough enforcement and more rule changes and legislation to end mountaintop removal coal mining completely.”

Earthjustice, an environmental group that’s sued to stop the practice, accused the administration of undermining the legal process, The Associated Press reported.

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