WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department said on Monday it will try to overturn a Bush administration rule that made it easier for coal mining companies to dump mountaintop debris into valley streams.
Calling the rule a “major misstep,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he will ask the Justice Department to go to the courts to withdraw the Bush regulation and send it back to Interior to stop the policy.
Salazar said the Bush-era rule allowed coal mine operators to use “the cheapest and most convenient disposal option” for mountaintop fill.
“We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports,” Salazar said.
More than half U.S. electricity is generated from coal. U.S. surface coal mining is mostly done in the steep mountains of Appalachia, across Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky and accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. coal production.
Major energy companies, such as Arch Coal Inc and Consol Energy, participate in mountaintop mining, which involves scraping the surface of mountains and pushing the crumbled mountaintop debris into adjoining valleys.
Under the Bush rule, coal mine operators can dispose of excess mountaintop debris in and within 100 feet of nearby streams streams whenever alternative options are deemed “not reasonably possible.”
The Bush regulation replaced a 1983 rule that allowed dumping within 100 feet of a stream if it would not “adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.”
National Mining Association chief executive Hal Quinn criticized the department’s rejection of the Bush rule.
“The Secretary of the Interior’s move to undo a seven year rulemaking process is precipitous and will only add to the uncertainty that is delaying mining operations and jeopardizing jobs,” Quinn said in a statement.
Salazar said most states still operate under the 1983 rule and that he did not believe the department’s actions would affect coal mining operations or permits that have already been issued under the older rule.
“The 1983 rule was more protective of water and water quality in the stream, so there is no policy or legal justification to abandon the 1983 rule,” Salazar said.
Environmental group Earthjustice said that the 1983 rule was not enforced against waste dumping, however.
“Unless this announcement is accompanied by a firm commitment to enforce the law as it applies to mountaintop removal and valley fills, it’s meaningless,” said Earthjustice senior legislative counsel Joan Mulhern in a statement.
The EPA said last month it had legal power to block permits for mountaintop coal mines if the agency determined the mining would permanently harm water quality by polluting valley streams.
The Interior Department has overturned several Bush era policies deemed harmful to the environment since U.S. President Barack Obama has taken office. Earlier this year, the department scrapped Utah oil and natural gas production leases near national parks.
The department also extended the comment period on a controversial offshore leasing plan that would open previously banned areas to drilling.
Additional reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Marguerita Choy