updated 3/31/2004 11:24:52 AM ET 2004-03-31T16:24:52

Tales of floods and flattened peaks and of homes swept away or devalued in central Appalachia were laid out Tuesday by opponents to the Bush administration’s plan to ease a buffer-zone regulation protecting streams from coal mining operations.

Testifying at an Interior Department hearing on the proposal, Mary Miller of Sylvester, W.Va., said the value of her home had dropped from $144,000 to below $12,000. Residents in her coalfield town won economic damages last month suing a mining company over coal dust covering their homes, vehicles and other property.

“I’m out here now trying to save my home,” said Miller. “I don’t have much left anyway. I don’t have many years left. But I’m thinking about the water shortage for my children.”

The department in January proposed easing a 1983 rule that set limits on coal mining near streams. Current policy says land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining unless a company can prove it will not affect the water’s quality and quantity.

The new rule would require coal operators to minimize only “to the extent possible” any damage to streams, fish and wildlife by “using the best technology currently available.”

Industry's view
In a small auditorium at the department’s headquarters, nearly all of the more than two dozen speakers opposed the plan. A lawyer for the National Mining Association was the only one to praise it.

“Our preference is that the rule be deleted entirely,” said Bradford Frisby, the trade group’s associate general counsel. “There are other regulations that protect streams.”

His group has described the current buffer zone rule as confusing and going beyond the intent of Congress when it passed a 1977 law on environmental impacts of coal mining.

Citizens, environmentalists, religious leaders and public health advocates turned out to demand that the department drop its proposal and instead more vigorously enforce current law. Four other hearings on the issue were held Tuesday in Charleston, W.Va.; Greentree, Pa.; Hazard, Ky., and Harriman, Tenn.

Jobs vs. pollution, erosion
Some of the testimony reflected the double-edged sword that mining has been in rural communities for years, providing jobs and coal for fuel but also stream pollution, scarred land and erosion-caused floods.

“We’re not Luddites. We know coal is important to the economy. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do things,” said Melody Flowers, a Harvard University graduate student who recalled growing up in Barboursville, W.Va. She said she was saddened to see new scars on the landscape during trips to visit her brother, Cole, a West Virginia state trooper.

“We’re the ’Mountain State’ — we’re not the ’Reclaimed Strip Mine State Where You Can Build an Air Park or a Mall State,”’ she said.

Kristen Hite, a Georgetown University law school student, said she feared losing beloved parks near Kingsport, Tenn., where she grew up and spent every summer of her life.

“My fondest memories are there. If anything were to happen to that, I would be seriously devastated,” she said, describing the federal plan as “absolutely unacceptable.”

Department officials have said the current policy is impossible to comply with during “mountaintop mining,” which involves shearing off the tops of ridges to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock are pushed below, often in stream beds, a practice known as valley fill.

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