World Environment News

EPA rule allows mining firms to dump waste in rivers

Date: 06-May-02
Country: USA
Author: Chris Baltimore

The new rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers are a boon for coal mining, the life-blood of the economy in Appalachia, the impoverished region stretching across West Virginia and Kentucky.

The agencies will "apply new conditions to permits issued to regulate the placement of dirt or rock from mountaintop mining in streams," EPA said in a release.

Many coal companies in the region, bisected by the Appalachian Mountains, rely on a controversial technique known as "mountaintop mining," where peaks of hills and mountains are sliced off to expose the coal buried beneath them.

Coal companies then plow the remaining rubble downhill - often into ravines or valleys that host rivers or streams.

Environmental groups said the rules are significant weakening of the Clean Water Act. Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with Earthjustice, called the move "the biggest threat to our nation's water in decades."

"Allowing masses of industrial wastes to be dumped into streams, lakes and rivers ... is contrary to the very purpose of the Clean Water Act and represents a major weakening of current clean water law," Mulhern said. She called the measure "legal relief from the Bush administration" to coal companies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will adopt a new definition of the term "fill material," which EPA says brings the regulation into line with existing language in the Clean Water Act. The Army Corps has jurisdiction over mining waste.

"Mountaintop mining is a long-established practice in Appalachia," said Army Undersecretary Les Brownlee, stating that the Army Corps will limit the amount of rubble coal companies can dump in Appalachian streams.

"We are committed to working with the affected states to reduce mining-related environmental impacts, while providing the nation with the advantages of cleaner-burning coal," EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said in a release.

EPA says the rule will enhance environmental protection of wetland areas by prohibiting dumping trash or garbage in them.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Mulhern said. "Anyone who has ever seen what happens when a stream is buried under 900 feet of mining rubble would not conclude that this is a good thing for water quality."

More than 1,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia region have been damaged by mining waste, she said.

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