Salazar seeks end to dumping of mine waste

Washington Post / April 28, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared yesterday that a Bush administration regulation allowing mining companies to dump their waste near rivers and stream is "legally defective," and he instructed the Justice Department to ask the US District Court for the District of Columbia to vacate the rule.

The announcement, which came on the same day the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was taking a second look at a handful of Bush-era rules on air pollution, shows the Obama administration is continuing to chip away at the environmental policies of its predecessor.

Some environmentalists, however, were disappointed by Salazar's move, arguing that more needs to be done and that the federal government has failed to enforce its own rule governing mountaintop mining practices for decades.

The ongoing dispute centers on a 1983 law that bars mining operators from dumping the massive piles of debris - which stem from blowing off the tops of mountains to get to the coal - within 100 feet of any intermittent or permanent stream if the material would harm a stream's water quality or reduce its flow. But federal and state courts have issued conflicting interpretations of the law, and widespread dumping continued.

"In its last weeks in office, the Bush Administration pushed through a rule that allows coal mine operators to dump mountaintop fill into streambeds if it's found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option," Salazar said in a statement. "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."