Interior Publishes Notice on Mountaintop Mining

The Department of the Interior published today an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that lays out options for mitigating the environmental impact of mountaintop mining. Specifically, the notice discusses a Bush administration rule finalized in December 2008 which allows mining operations to dump waste in or near rivers and streams. I’ve been critical of the advanced notice before, because it is an unnecessary step in the regulatory process that will delay water quality protections.

Interior’s surface mining office operates under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. As Interior acknowledged in the notice, the Act requires mountaintop mining agencies to “minimize disturbances and adverse impacts of the operation on fish, wildlife, and related environmental values, and achieve enhancement of such resources where practicable.”

That’s not happening now. Hundreds of miles of streams and rivers have been completely obliterated in the Appalachians in recent years. Both the surrounding environment and the communities dependent upon those water supplies have suffered as a result.

The advanced notice proposes 10 alternatives which “are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” the notice says.

The most straightforward option is the first one listed – repealing the Bush-era rule and replacing it with the rule that had previously been in place. That option would restore a 100 foot buffer zone around rivers and streams.

Other options include changing the permitting process for new mining operations by placing it in the context of the Clean Water Act (which demands preservation of water quality) and/or increasing consultations with the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the bottom line is that any regulatory improvement will have to wait. While the process drags on, Interior will update its environmental impact statement – a document required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

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