UPDATE: I've added video of the testimony to the end of this post.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a senior counsel for NRDC, is a long-time, prominent critic of mountaintop removal coal mining. Today he testified in Congress before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass).
In general, Kennedy spoke out passionately against the recent surge in regulatory rollbacks by the Bush administration which threaten public health, natural resources, wildlife, water and air quality. Here is what he said about mountaintop mining -- specifically, the Bush administration's decision last week to ease rules so that coal companies can legally dump mining waste into rivers and streams:
"Perhaps the most dramatic assault upon America's waters occurs in the Appalachia Mountains, where entire mountain tops are blasted off and dumped into stream and river valleys so that coal companies can access coal reserves in the cheapest possible manner.
"This practice, known as Mountaintop Removal Mining, has buried or damaged more than 1,200 miles of irreplaceable headwater streams. What's left is a wasteland. Well over 400,000 acres of the world's most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forests have already disappeared, and it is predicted that that figure could increase to 1.4 million acres -- 2,200 square miles -- by the end of the decade if nothing is done to limit this practice. Since the first days of the Bush Administration, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining have taken every possible step to make the destruction easier.
"On December 1, 2008, DOI issued a final Stream Buffer Zone Rule, officially referred to as the Placement of Excess Spill rule. This rule eliminates the standing prohibition against mining within 100 feet of streams if it will have an adverse effect on water quantity, water quality, and other environmental resources of the stream. In its place, the new rule merely asks coal operators to 'minimize' harm to the extent possible. This is an open invitation to industry to ignore a rule that already, as a practical matter, has been routinely abused and violated as federal and state regulators looked the other way.
"The final Stream Buffer Zone rule is a reversal of OSM's prior interpretation of legal requirements to protect headwaters. When it promulgated the original Buffer Zone rule in 1983, OSM chose to protect intermittent and perennial streams because they were especially significant in establishing the hydrologic balance. Even during the Reagan Administration, the department recognized its responsibility 'to protect streams from sedimentation and gross disturbances of stream channels caused by surface coal mining and reclamation projects.' (48 Fed. Reg. 30312)
"Nearly ten years ago, in a court decision interpreting the previous rule, the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that '[n]othing in the statute, the federal or state buffer zone regulations, or the agency language promulgating the federal regulations suggests that portions of existing streams may be destroyed so long as (some other portion of) the stream is saved.' The Court held that the practice of burying valley streams under tons of blasted mountaintop debris violated federal and state water quality standards. The law has not changed. Instead, the Stream Buffer Zone rule relies on polite legal fictions to eviscerate the meaning and letter of the Clean Water Act and prioritize the convenience of the coal mining industry over the health and safety of Appalachian communities and their waterways."
What Congress -- and everyone -- needs to realize is that decapitating mountains to cheaply mine coal is not just environmentally destructive, but morally wrong. There are better ways to mine coal -- and cleaner alternatives than coal to generate our power. We don't need, nor do we have to accept this this Appalachian Apocalypse.