Interior Department Comes Out Strong (Rhetorically) on Mountaintop Removal

The Interior Department announced yesterday that it is taking immediate steps to strengthen oversight of state-approved surface coal mining operations -- including mountaintop removal -- and to impose tighter restrictions on the dumping of mining waste in steams.

In a statement issued by the agency, Assistant Interior Secretary Wilma Lewis acknowledged that coal is a vital part of the country's energy mix, but that "we have a responsibility to ensure that development is done in a way that protects public health and safety and the environment." 

Interior doing its job by pledging to crack down on mountaintop removal? That's certainly welcome news.  Aye, but here's the rub: the department said its actions are designed to serve as "interim steps" until a federal rulemaking process can be completed.

"We are moving as quickly as possible under the law to gather public input for a new rule, based on sound science, that will govern how companies handle fill removed from mountaintop coal seams," Wilma explained.  "Until we put a new rule in place, we will work to provide certainty to coal operations and the communities that depend on coal for their livelihood, strengthen our oversight and inspections, and coordinate with other federal agencies to better protect streams and water quality."

Why in the world would I have a problem with this?  As I previously posted on the apparent "slow-walk" on this issue by the Interior Department, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar knows full well that President Bush's 'midnight regulation' loosened protections to allow coal companies to dump mining waste directly into streams, and he favors revoking that rule change to restore original "stream buffer zone" protections that were enacted back in 1983. But rather than having his agency propose that change right away and proceeded straight to public input, the Interior Department's chosen course of action is a brand new rulemaking process that won't result in any changes to the rule until at least 2011.  As I have written

Interior's inexplicable and inexcusable decision to delay appropriate regulatory action is a setback for the protection of Appalachian streams and rivers, as well as for the people who depend on clean drinking water in the areas affected by mountaintop removal.  Clearly, the last-minute rulemaking under the Bush administration was a giveaway to coal mining companies, leaving America's waterways exposed to the waste and damage from this dirty business.  It shouldn't take two years to determine what we already know: mountaintop removal is one the most environmental destructive activities, especially for our waterways.

But Joe Pizarchik, the controversial new director of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation (OSM), begs to differ. OSM is publishing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the stream buffer zone rule issued by the Bush Administration in December 2008.  

"We are moving as expeditiously as possible in the rulemaking process, but we will not take shortcuts around the law or the science," said Pizarchik.  "Until we complete the new rule, we have to manage the shortcomings of the [Bush] rule."

In the meantime, Pizarchik pledged tougher oversight and stronger enforcement to put "all hands on deck to ensure that Appalachian communities are protected."  

This all sounds like progress but is it really?  I needed a reality check so I consulted my colleague Jon Devine, NRDC's resident policy pro on mountaintop removal.  He confirmed my suspicions, telling me:

"Sounds like pretty weak tea.  An advanced notice of proposed rulemaking is unnecessary, especially if they want to act quickly, as they claim here.  They should just do a proposed rule, and get the process underway."

So, all the talk of "immediate steps" and "sound science" sounds, well, nice.  But if there's one thing Appalachia doesn't need is bureaucratic dithering.  For too long the coal companies have gotten speedy approvals for their recklessly destructive mining that is leveling America's oldest mountains, polluting streams and poisoning communities.  At a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is waking up to significant water quality threats from mountaintop removal -- and acting promptly to hold all of the pending permits -- it baffles me as to why Interior is plodding along in its promise to fix a simple problem: stop letting mining companies dump millions of tons of dirt, rock, rubble and debris into our waterways

Each day of delay means more irreversible damage to Appalachian streams.