updated 10/17/2008 6:22:25 PM ET 2008-10-17T22:22:25

The Interior Department has advanced a proposal that would ease restrictions on dumping mountaintop mining waste near rivers and streams, modifying protections that have been in place — though often circumvented by mining companies — for a quarter-century.

The department's Office of Surface Mining issued a final environmental impact analysis Friday on the proposed rule change, which has been under consideration for four years. It has been a top priority of the surface mining industry.

It sets the stage for a final regulation, one of the last major environmental initiatives of the Bush administration, after 30 days of additional public comment and interagency review.

The proposed rule would rewrite a regulation enacted in 1983 by the Reagan administration that bars mining companies from dumping huge waste piles — known as "valley fills" — from surface mining within 100 feet of any intermittent or perennial stream if the disposal adversely impacts water quality or quantity.

The revisions would require mining companies to minimize the debris they dump as much as possible, but also would let them skirt the 100-foot protective buffer requirement if compliance is determined to be impossible.

Activists angry
"The new rule will allow coal companies to dump massive waste piles directly into streams, permanently burying them," warned Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice, among the environmental groups that have fought the practice known as mountaintop removal mining widely used in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Virginia and Tennessee.

Mining companies remove vast mountaintop areas to expose the coal. While they are required to restore much of the land, the removal includes many tons of rocks, debris and other waste that are trucked away and then dumped into valley areas, including stream beds.

Despite the 100-foot buffer requirement, environmentalists estimate hundreds of miles of streams have been impacted, some of them obliterated, because of lax enforcement of the 1983 restrictions.

This proposed rule "legitimizes mountaintop removal and its most damaging effect which is putting valley fill and sludge into streams," said Mulhern.

The Office of Surface Mining maintains that the 1983 rule "has never been applied as an absolute prohibition of mining activities near a stream," according to a fact sheet included in the rulemaking. It acknowledged there has been confusion about the rule among federal and state regulators.

The revisions are an attempt to clarify the situation, the fact sheet says.

Industry: Protection will improve
The mining agency, in a statement issued Friday, said the proposed changes reflect a "slightly positive" improvement in environmental protection because it would require coal companies to minimize impacts of the dumping by reducing the amount of wastes and the disposal areas.

Mulhern called that "a sham" and said the agency "did not even study, among available alternatives" the option of strictly enforcing the stream buffer rule that has been on the books since 1983.

"Instead they pretended that the existing stream buffer law does not apply. ... They claim their rule is better for the environment when the exact opposite is true," she said.

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