updated 1/8/2004 12:21:32 PM ET 2004-01-08T17:21:32

The Bush administration proposed on Wednesday revising a policy that limits mining activity near streams, changes environmentalists say will encourage a particularly destructive way of obtaining coal.

The method, dubbed “mountaintop mining,” involves shearing off the tops of ridges to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock are pushed into nearby stream beds, a practice known as valley fill.

The Interior Department’s proposal would eliminate an existing policy that says land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining activity unless a company can prove that the work won’t affect the stream’s water quality and quantity.

In the proposed rule, the department said that the standard is impossible to comply with and coal operators must instead prevent damage to streams “to the extent possible, using the best technology currently available.”

Activists angry
Environmentalists said valley fills are a violation of the existing buffer zone rule and that the Bush administration is caving into the industry, which wants to protect its ability to use the increasingly popular mining technique.

“Instead of changing industry practice to conform to the law, the Bush administration is changing the law to conform to industry practices,” said Jim Hecker, a Washington-based environmental lawyer. He is involved in a West Virginia court case challenging the practice of mountaintop mining.

Joan Mulhern, a lawyer for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said the proposal is the second major blow to environmentalists’ efforts to prevent damage from mountaintop mining. The administration issued a rule in May 2002 that eliminated an Army Corps ban on mine waste and other pollution in waterways.

A federal judge in West Virginia previously ruled that mountaintop mining violated the “buffer zone rule,” but an appeals court decided that the judge lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case, saying it should have been tried in state court.

Arguments for change
The Bush administration argued the new rule is needed to clarify the intent of the buffer zone rule, which was last amended in 1983 and which federal officials say wasn’t designed to prevent mountaintop mining altogether.

“I think you’ve got to recognize that’s a viable means of mining coal,” said Dave Hartos, a scientist with the Interior Department who helped write the rule.

Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the current buffer zone rule is confusing and goes beyond what Congress intended when it passed in 1977 a sweeping law that dealt with the environmental impact of coal mining.

Interior Department background on the proposal is online at http://www.osmre.gov/ocanoun.htm.

Through March, the public may comment on the proposal via email to OSMRULES@OSMRE.GOV.

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