Environmentalists sued the Bush administration on Monday, trying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from changing a rule they say keeps mining waste from entering mountain streams.
"The notion that coal mining companies can dump their wastes in streams without degrading them is a fantasy that the Bush administration is now trying to write into law," said Judith Petersen of Kentucky Waterways Alliance, one of the groups that sued in U.S. District Court in Washington.
At issue is mountaintop mining, in which forests are clear cut and holes are drilled to blast apart rock. Massive machines then scoop coal from the exposed seams. The rock and dirt left behind is dumped into adjacent valleys, changing the natural shape of the earth, lowering the height of the mountain and covering 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 regulation would allow mining that would alter a stream's flow as long as any damage to the environment is repaired later.
Opponents want a federal judge to overturn or delay the new regulation.
"This is among the eleventh hour land mines planted by the Bush administration that an EPA headed by Lisa Jackson stands to inherit," Earthjustice lawyer Jennifer Chavez said, referring to President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the agency. "We are doing what we can to make it easier for the incoming administration to undo the damage wrought by the last one and restore our nation's commitment to protecting the waters and summits of the Appalachians."
Mining industry groups, though, argue the rule change has been in the works for years, and would change very little over how mountaintop removal mining is done.
"There's been an enormous amount of overreaction to this," West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said Monday. "They're trying to make it something that it truly is not."
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said the agency "approved the new rule because it strengthens the environmental review required for mining activities and reduces potential adverse effects to water quality and fish and wildlife resources."