updated 8/12/2009 4:53:55 PM ET 2009-08-12T20:53:55

A federal judge on Wednesday rebuffed the Obama administration’s attempt to reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows surface mine waste to be dumped near streams.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wanted the rule vacated, saying in April the regulation approved the month President George W. Bush left office “failed to pass the smell test.” Salazar wanted to return to a 1983 regulation that kept coal companies 100 feet from streams unless they can prove mining won’t harm water quality or quantity.

But U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. in Washington wrote in his ruling that granting Salazar’s request would be tantamount to changing a federal regulation without public input.

The Interior Department said it is reviewing the decision.

“This Administration has shown it is determined to improve mining practices and we will do so within the context of the court’s ruling,” spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in an e-mail.

The ruling is a victory for the U.S. coal industry but another defeat for opponents of mountaintop removal mining, a process in which mining companies remove vast areas to expose coal. While they are required to restore much of the land, the removal creates many tons of debris that’s used to fill nearby valleys.

Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most used — West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee — produce nearly 130 million tons of coal each year, or about 14 percent of the coal that produces electricity in the U.S., and employ about 14,000 people.

Groups such as the Sierra Club want the practice banned, claiming it destroys mountaintops and pollutes water, among other things. The coal industry argues that surface mines provide high-paying jobs and cheap electricity.

Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein called the ruling “unfortunate.”

“It’s really going to take a comprehensive effort to end this type of mining altogether,” Bernstein said. “We are glad that the Obama administration is really giving a close look to mountaintop removal coal mining, but we are still waiting to see decisions that actually end this practice altogether.”

Bernstein’s comments came a day after the Sierra Club criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a mountaintop removal mining permit in southern West Virginia.

The National Mining Association applauded Kennedy’s decision Wednesday. Spokesman Luke Popovich noted that the Bush administration spent better than five years rewriting the stream buffer rule, including taking public input.

“This is a particularly gratifying ruling. Not only will it reassure thousands of coal miners that their jobs are a little safer than they were yesterday, but it’s likely to have much broader application for mining,” Popovich said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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