Interior Secretary Blasts Mountaintop Removal

On the eve of President Obama's 'First 100 Days' in office, Jeff Biggers provides an excellent recap of where the administration stands on dirty coal.  As he points out, in general the outlook is good but current conditions are still hazy.  On mountaintop removal specificially, Biggers frames the murky dilemma:

An Agonizingly Slow Sorta Maybe Kinda Regulated Phase Out, or Perhaps Deliberate Steps Toward Abolishing the Most Egregious Human Rights and Environmental Betrayal of Our Times?

That essentially captures the reaction to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's surprise announcement yesterday that his agency is taking legal action to revoke a Bush administration regulation that allows coal companies to use rivers and streams as dumping grounds for mining waste.  Instead, Salazar favors a return to the previous -- more environmentally protective -- federal standard enacted during the Reagan administration.  As reported by the Washington Post:

"The ongoing dispute centers on a 1983 law that bars mining operators from dumping piles of debris -- which stem from blowing off the tops of mountains to get to the coal -- within 100 feet of any intermittent or permanent stream if the material would harm a stream's water quality or reduce its flow.  Federal and state courts have issued conflicting interpretations of the law, and widespread dumping continued.  The government estimates that 1,600 miles of streams in Appalachia have been wiped out since the mid-1980s.

"In December, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a rule that required companies to avoid the 100-foot stream buffer zone if they could, but it allowed them to continue dumping 'if avoidance is not possible.' Environmental groups filed two lawsuits challenging the rule."

 In a statement issued by the Interior Department, Sec. Salazar said:

"In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration pushed through a rule that allows coal mine operators to dump mountaintop fill into streambeds if it's found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option...We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports."

Naturally, my initial reaction to this news was, "Attaboy, Mr. Secretary!"  Yet another postive step forward for the administration, which follows EPA's recent decision to closely scrutinize mountaintop removal mining permits by the Army Corps of Engineers, which were little more than rubber stamps during the previous administration.

Of course, as my colleagues have pointed out, words are good but deeds are what matter in the end.  That's why NRDC, while cheered by Salazar's action, is taking a "wait and see" stance for now.  That's because reversing the bad Bush stream buffer zone (sacrifice) rule is a necessary, but nowhere near sufficient step.  Kudos to the Obama administration for its aggressive reassessment of federal policies that authorize mountaintop removal, as well as for environmental agency heads who are finally questioning the necessity of this highly destructive practice, but until those words become action that finally puts a stop to the world's worst coal mining then we're going to continue to keep the pressure on.

No matter which side of the energy debate you're on, it's clear that the devastating ecological and social impacts associated with removing entire mountaintops throughout Appalachia is the wrong way to obtain coal.  Fighting the coal industry isn't easy and no one should think that this latest announcement ends the battle to protect mountaintops in Appalachia, but momentum is shifting, seemingly, in a positive way, thanks to the Obama administration.

Meantime, I would urge President Obama and agency leaders to continue their due diligence by taking a short trip from D.C. to view mountaintop removal -- either from the air or the ground.  There's no better way to gauge the devastation than through the lense of those living in Appalachia, especially American citizens who are being victimized by the razing of their beloved mountains and the ruination of their quality of life.  In the words of West Virginia's environmental award-winning coal miner's daugher Maria Gunnoe:

"The Appalachian people have been promised prosperity through coal for the last 125 years.  And we're poorer now, because we used to be rich in the abundance of the land, and now that's been taken away.  And there are fewer jobs than there have ever been here.  I think it's time to keep that promise of prosperity in the form of green jobs, which have a real promise for the future.  That's the only way we're going to pull ourselves out of this slop."