The Bush administration wants to quit requiring coal operators to prove that their surface mining will not damage streams, fish and wildlife.
Under proposed new regulations being issued Friday for public comment, strip mine operators would have to show only that they intend "to prevent, to the extent possible using the best technology currently available," such damage.
Ben Owens, a spokesman for the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, said Thursday that the proposed changes are intended to clear up "confusion regarding the requirements pertinent to mining in and around 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.
Interior officials have said that complying with that buffer zone requirement is impossible in "mountaintop removal mining," which involves shearing off the tops of ridges to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock are pushed below, often into stream beds, a practice known as valley fill.
The new regulations would allow mining that would alter a stream's flow as long as any damages to the environment are repaired later.
Valley fills allowed under the old, 1983 regulations will still be permitted. The volume of rock that can be displaced to get to the surface of a coal seam and the area where that rock is put can be "no larger than needed," according to the proposal.
Environmentalists want such fills banned entirely.
"The Bush administration just doesn't give up in its quest to give away more and more legal protections to the mountaintop removal polluters," said Joan Mulhern, an attorney for the Earthjustice legal firm.
The latest changes to the buffer-zone rule were first proposed more than three years ago.
At a hearing in March 2004, opponents talked of floods and flattened peaks and of homes swept away or devalued in central Appalachia.
A lawyer for the National Mining Association said the mines' preference was to get rid of the rule entirely, because it is confusing and there are other protections for streams in federal law.
After a 60 day-comment period on the proposal, a final rule probably would not be issued before next year.