Friday, October 12, 2007

Agency extends comment period on buffer rules for mountaintop mining

by Eric Bontrager, E&E Greenwire reporter

The Office of Surface Mining has extended the public-comment deadline on proposed changes to rules that are supposed to protect streams from mountaintop coal mining, but environmentalists say still more time is needed to spread the word to isolated communities that would be most affected by the proposal.

OSM said yesterday it would allow an additional 30 days -- until Nov. 23 -- for comments on proposed standards for surface coal mine operations near bodies of water. Along with extending the comment period from 60 days to 90 days, the agency also scheduled four additional public hearings.

OSM spokesman Tom Geoghegan said the office extended the deadline in response to multiple requests from interest groups and members of Congress. "It's not out of the ordinary," he said, "People want more time."

At issue is mountaintop mining, which companies use to expose coal seams in West Virginia, Kentucky and other Appalachian states. The controversial practice shears a ridge top and deposits waste rock in valleys that are often coursed by streams.

Current rules, which have been in effect since 1983, require coal operators to establish a buffer around streams. "No land," they say, "within 100 feet of an intermittent or perennial stream shall be disturbed by surface mining operations, including roads, unless specifically authorized."

The proposed rules would extend the stream buffer zone rule to all waters, including lakes, ponds and wetlands. But it would also exempt certain activities, including "permanent excess spoil fills, and coal waste disposal facilities" and would allow mining that would change a waterway's flow provided the mining company repaired the damage later.

Critics of the proposal say the 30 day extension still won't allow enough time to spread the word to isolated communities in areas affected by mountaintop mining.

"It's hard to reach the people and get the comments," said Judy Bonds, co-director of the Coal River Mountain Watch. "These are the very people that are affected by this rule change."

The West Virginia Council of Churches also condemned the proposed changes to the rule yesterday, claiming they would clear the way for more mountaintop mining that inflicts "permanent and irreparable" damage on the local environment.

"Once the top of a mountain has been removed, it cannot be put back," the group said in a statement. "The streams cannot be replaced, and the native hardwood forests and diverse under-story do not grow back."

OSM will hold hearings in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. Bond, whose group had unsuccessfully petitioned for a 90-day extension on the comment period, said the sites selected for the public hearings are "insufficient" and "a slap in the face" because they omit other coal-producing regions affected by the rule like Western states and Virginia.

A federal judge in West Virginia issued an injunction yesterday against a mountaintop removal mine in the state, agreeing with environmental groups that questioned permits issued for the project.

The temporary restraining order halts plans by the Callisto Mine in Boon County to begin work that could damage or destroy 5,750 feet of streams and tributaries that feed the Little Coal River.

Judge Robert Chambers of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia ordered the fill activities suspended until the court can rule on the challenge to the Callisto permit.

The environmental groups "made a strong showing that the permits issued by the [Army Corps of Engineers] are arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, and contrary to the economic and environmental balance struck by Congress in the passage of the relevant environmental statutes," Chambers wrote.

In March, Chambers blocked four permits for mountaintop removal coal mines, ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers did not properly assess the potential impact on streams. The permits, issued to subsidiaries of Massey Energy, would have allowed the stripping of about 3,800 acres of land and the burial of more than 12 miles of streams, according to court records.


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