U.S. moves toward new dumping rules for mining waste

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials have moved closer to finalizing rules on the disposal of mining waste, a plan environmentalists said gives mountaintop mining companies more freedom to dump debris near rivers and streams.

The current rules were put in place in 1983 but needed to be clarified because of conflicting interpretations, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) said in a statement released on Friday.

The proposed changes, subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would require coal mining operations to avoid the area within 100 feet of a stream or “show why avoidance is not possible,” OSM said.

Work within the 100-foot “stream buffer zone” would be prohibited unless the mining agency granted a waiver, or if the activity is exempt from the ban. Companies wanting to operate within the zone must minimize debris “to the extent possible,” the agency said.

Mountaintop mining -- removing large mountaintop areas to expose coal -- is safer for miners than underground mining but environmental groups say it has devastated forests, rivers and streams.

The proposed waste disposal rules “will allow coal companies to dump massive waste piles ... directly into streams, permanently burying them,” environmental group Earthjustice said in a statement.

More than 2,000 miles (3,200km) of Appalachian streams already have been buried or degraded by mountaintop mining waste, the group said.

OSM, however, said the plan would be “slightly positive” for the environment because it requires coal mining companies to minimize certain impacts, such as the volume of rock and other debris disposed outside the mined area.

The Sierra Club urged the EPA to reject the plan, calling it “fatally flawed.”

“It makes no effort to fairly examine alternatives and its only purpose is to expedite mining without regard to environmental damage,” Ed Hopkins, Sierra Club director of environmental quality, said in a statement.

Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Trott