In Appalachia, a last-minute change in mining rules by the Bush Administration affects how coal companies can dump debris in watersheds -- a major environmental impact from mountaintop-removal mining operations. (Video: Assignment Earth)
>> In Appalachia, blasting away mountain tops to reach coal underneath provides jobs for thousands and electricity for millions of Americans. But this type of mining destroys forests and streams. Environmentalists say new federal mining rules will only make things worse.
>> We’ve expected this weakening for a long time. It’s a parting gift to the coal industry, really, from the Bush Administration.
>> The old buffer-zone rule was tougher on paper, but rarely enforced. Since the mid-1990’s, more than 1,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been buried by mining debris. Coal companies say the new rules will give greater protection to watersheds.
>> The allegations that this is going to open the gates for a lot of environmental harm and a lot of additional mining, that just simply isn't true.
>> After mountain peaks are blown up, massive machines move in to extract the coal. The mine is then covered, but millions of tons of rock and dirt are left over.
>> You've got to have a place to put it. And where you put it is in the lower elevations.
>> The industry term is “valley fill.” It is a common practice in Appalachia, where one-third of the nation’s coal is mined. Invoking the Clean Water Act, opponents have blocked new mining permits in Kentucky and West Virginia since 2007. But that is now set to change.
>> With the transparency, with the clarity, and with all of that coming, we’re hoping that litigation is minimized.
>> Under the new rules, coal companies must minimize environmental impacts and find reasonable alternatives to dumping their waste within 100 feet of a stream. But words like “reasonable” are not defined. And phrases like “to the extent possible” are not explained.
>> That’s really an attempt to hide the true purpose of the rule making, which is to weaken the law by taking credit for requiring minimization, which is already part of the law and has been for 25 years.
>> Coal companies say the new rules will put more people to work and actually tighten safeguards by forcing them to pile more debris over the mountaintops they level. Opponents say the rules give coal operators legal cover to dump rock and dirt in the upper valleys of mountains where streams begin.
>> If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny. The Bush Administration goes out on a low note here, failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and now weakening the Surface Mining Act, and claiming that it’s strengthening it.
>> The Obama Administration cannot stop coal companies from filling in valleys without first changing the mining rules it has inherited, and they were five years in the making. Mining opponents hope Congress and the new President will act much more quickly than that to undo them.
>>For Assignment Earth, I’m Gary Strieker.
"Assignment Earth" features compelling video reports from the front lines of major environmental stories from around the globe. Topics include global warming, pollution, habitat destruction and endangered species.