Despite vocal opposition from environmental groups, the public and politicians, the Environmental Protection Agency repealed a stream-buffer-zone rule that — since 1983 — had prohibited surface coal-mining activities within 100 feet of flowing streams.
Opponents say the repeal clears the way for an expansion of mountaintop removal. “The EPA’s decision is a slap in the face of Appalachian communities, which have already endured enough injustice from mountaintop removal,” said Vernon Haltom, co-director of the West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch. “My home and thousands of others are now in greater jeopardy.”
The repeal was proposed by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM), which sought written approval from the EPA before it finalizing it. On Dec. 2, EPA administrator Steven Johnson signed off on the proposal.
Last month, Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, and Reps. Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth each wrote letters to Johnson asking him not to allow the repeal. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen also voiced concerns on behalf of his state.
“The regions most affected by this rule, in the Appalachian Coal Belt, are some of the poorest in the nation,” said Lane Boldman with the Sierra Club Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter. “All they are asking for is some fundamental protection of their waterways so that they can continue to fish and swim downstream.”
In October, a nationwide poll on mountaintop-removal mining found that two out of three likely voters opposed the rule change. An Oct. 21 NY Times editorial noted that “more than 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia already have been buried or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.” And then-presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both voiced their opposition to the practice.
“Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to live up to its name. With less than two months left in power, the Bush administration is determined to cement its legacy as having the worst environmental record in history,” said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice.
By some measures, more than 400 mountaintops have been stripped of trees and flattened, 1,200 miles of mountain streams buried under rubble. The forests that once cloaked 387,000 acres of the world’s most ancient mountain range have been razed. If the industry is allowed to proceed at its current pace, an area the size of Delaware will have been lost, say environmental groups.
— Margaret Williams, contributing editor