From the President who brought you “Clean Skies (cough)” and “Healthy Forests (not)” comes a slashing of the “Buffer Zone” rule which is supposed to prohibit mining companies from dumping waste rock—created by mountaintop removal to extract coal—within 100 feet of streams.  As we all know from 3rd grade science class, these small streams flow into larger streams, then creeks and rivers.  They are the underpinning of the natural ecosystem—locally and regionally.  Clogging up the headwaters with boulders, rocks and soil, ruins the local ecology and creates havoc downstream.  But, with the blessing yesterday of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, the Interior Dept’s Office of Surface Mining is gutting the “Buffer Zone” rule. 

Under the existing rule, residents adversely affected by mountaintop removal had been using the “buffer zone” provision (along with other Clean Water Act rules) to try to force mine operators from degrading the valleys and streams (and their associated health and way of life) in their communities.  Coal operators were getting sued and needed the buffer zone rules changed so that opponents of mountaintop removal wouldn’t have it in their toolbox of legal options.   In the fine print of the rule’s benefits, that exactly what this rule is about–halting litigation against polluters by little guys in Applachian communities. 

if the rule is not adopted, “…the controversy and uncertainty concerning the meaning of the existing stream buffer zone rule may continue to exist.  That uncertainty creates the risk of additional litigation concerning the existing rule, which could result in regulatory instability and a reluctance on the part of coal ming companies to invest in new mining projects.”  (See screenshot of abstract from OMB/OIRA website )

Gotta luv how the Bush Administration throws in for good measure some general pandering to the coal industry.

As reported by the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, the new rule creates a huge loophole for coal mine operators:  they’re supposed to avoid dumping the waste rock in a 100-foot buffer zone adjacent to a stream,

“‘unless they show why they cannot do so ‘”..and if they do dump in the buffer zone, they must try to minimize the harm ‘to the extent practicable’ and compensate for the damage somewhere else.”

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward covers the issue very well in Bush moves forward with ‘buffer zone’ changes, including a quote from the National Mining Association reinforcing that the revision is designed to help the mining industry ward off lawsuits.

Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said her group “has supported clarification of the stream buffer zone rule to help end litigation that has … jeopardized thousands of mining jobs.”

Ward puts the rule change in context, providing key details that date back to a 1977 congressional mandate related to strip mining.  Further information on the changes to the buffer zone rule, see:

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (here)

Natural Resources Defense Council (here)

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