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EPA Proposal Would Allow Dumping Of Mining Waste into Rivers, Streams

By Eric Pianin

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to allow mining companies to dump dirt and rock waste from their mountaintop coal mining operations into rivers and streams, following an energetic lobbying campaign by the industry.

The proposed rule, if approved by the White House, would provide a major boost to low-sulfur coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky and stepped-up hardrock mining in western states. It also could undermine efforts by environmentalists and community groups to fight mountaintop mining operations that they say cause unacceptable damage to rivers and streams.

Modern mining techniques enable companies to shear off the tops of mountains to reach coal veins and then bulldoze the leftover rock and dirt into nearby valleys. It is a highly profitable venture, but it has been limited by federal rules and court challenges aimed at restricting how much of the waste from these operations can be dumped in waterways.

The new rules are essentially aimed at removing these impediments, in particular regulations adopted by the Army Corps of Engineers that prohibit mining companies from disposing of material considered waste, including rock and dirt, in the nearby waterways.

According to a draft “final rule” prepared jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers, the administration would eliminate that so-called “waste exclusion.” The White House has been supportive of efforts to help the mining industry but has not signed off on the final plan, officials said.

The administration has generally supported efforts to increase production of coal, oil and other energy sources. It has paid special attention to the problems of the mining industry in economically troubled parts of West Virginia.

Administration officials Thursday described the proposed new rules in technical terms -- largely an effort to bring the corps rules in line with their interpretation of the Clean Water Act.

They said there is nothing in the act that prohibits dumping of such mining waste in rivers and streams, played down any threat to the environment and described their plan as a preservation of the status quo.

“The changes would harmonize the definition the corps has been operating under with that of the EPA,” said Greg Peck, an EPA official who has been involved in the rulemaking. The EPA and Corps of Engineers are jointly responsible for assuring compliance with the Clean Water Act in granting permits for various types of dumping.