Last of three articles
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- The coal industry chafes at the name -- "mountaintop removal" -- but it aptly describes the novel mining method that became popular in this part of Appalachia in the late 1980s. Miners target a green peak, scrape it bare of trees and topsoil, and then blast away layer after layer of rock until the mountaintop is gone.
In just over a decade, coal miners used the technique to flatten hundreds of peaks across a region spanning West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Thousands of tons of rocky debris were dumped into valleys, permanently burying more than 700 miles of mountain streams. By 1999, concerns over the damage to waterways triggered a backlash of lawsuits and court rulings that slowed the industry's growth to a trickle.
"Mountaintop removal" mining has flattened many peaks, such as these near Kayford, W.Va.
(Bob Bird -- AP)
Flattening the Mountains: How mining companies tear down mountains and fill adjacent streams and hollows. Also, how the "fill rule" became law.
Map: W.Va. Mining Areas
_____About this Series_____About this Series
An Agency Takes a Turn
Under President Bush, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made sometimes subtle changes in regulations that carry large consequences for workers and employers. Across the government, the Bush administration has started fewer regulations and killed more inherited proposals than did either of the two previous administrations.
A Policy Puts Science on Trial
A last-minute addition to an unrelated piece of legislation has created a tool for attacking the science used by federal agencies as a basis for new regulations. Industry has embraced the Data Quality Act to challenge 32 major proposals, including a successful assault on efforts to restrict the use of the herbicide atrazine.
A Word Accelerates
By changing the word "waste" to "fill" in a regulation covering coal mining, Bush appointees have allowed an increase in the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia.
Today, mountaintop removal is booming again, and the practice of dumping mining debris into streambeds is explicitly protected, thanks to a small wording change to federal environmental regulations. U.S. officials simply reclassified the debris from objectionable "waste" to legally acceptable "fill."
The "fill rule," as the May 2002 rule change is now known, is a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences.
Sometimes the change hinges on a single critical phrase or definition. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposals last year to control mercury emissions, it also moved to downgrade the "hazardous" classification of mercury pollution from power plants -- a seemingly minor change that effectively gave utilities 15 more years to implement the most costly controls. Earlier this year, the Energy Department helped insert wording into a Senate bill to reclassify millions of gallons of "high-level" radioactive waste as "incidental," a change that would spare the government the expense of removing and treating the waste.
The fill rule is one of several key changes to coal-mining regulations that have been enacted or proposed by the Bush administration, which took office promising to ease bureaucratic burdens for the coal industry and expand the nation's energy production. To administration officials and mining companies, the changes are simply clarifications that eliminated ambiguities in the law. To environmental groups, they are the administration's payback to an industry that has raised $9 million for Republicans since 1998. The coal industry is a political force in West Virginia, a vital swing state whose five electoral votes for George W. Bush helped put him over the top in 2000.
One proposed change -- described by administration officials as a "clarification" of the Clean Water Act -- would effectively void a two-decade-old ban on mining within 100 feet of a stream. Another proposal would scale back the federal government's legal obligation to police state mining agencies, by reclassifying certain duties from "nondiscretionary" to "discretionary."
In October 2001, the Bush administration intervened to change the focus of a federal mining study that was poised to recommend limits on the size of new mountaintop mines. And, in an internal policy change this spring, the administration promulgated guidelines that allow ditches dug by coal companies to serve as substitutes for streams that were being buried by debris.
"They call them 'clarifications,' but it's really all about removing obstacles," said Jack Spadaro, who regulated coal mines for 32 years as a federal mine inspector and senior mining safety officer. "They've made it easier for companies to dump mining waste into streams, and harder for citizens to challenge them."
Bush administration officials defend the new policies, saying they are in keeping with a national energy strategy that seeks greater independence from foreign sources without sacrificing environmental safeguards.
"It's hard to strike that balance, but we believe, right down to the core of this agency, that we can do both," said Jeffrey D. Jarrett, director of the federal Office of Surface Mining. Noting that it was Congress that approved the practice of mountaintop mining 30 years ago, Jarrett said the administration's actions have introduced a measure of "stability and certainty" for the mines and their neighbors.
Mining industry officials say the changes benefited ordinary Americans by ensuring a steady supply of cheap, domestic coal at a time of instability in global oil and natural gas markets. "President Bush recognized the value of coal to our economy, and the role it plays in providing electricity," said Jack N. Gerard, president of the National Mining Association. "The administration has been diligent in its efforts to avoid disruptions in our energy supply."
Government studies show that mountaintop mining inflicts a heavy toll. Streams that have not been buried under mining debris carry high levels of silt and toxic chemicals, experts say. About 5 percent of forest cover in southern West Virginia has been stripped away by mines, along with popular mountain vistas that can never be replaced.