But overall, the cumulative impact of the regulatory changes has been to close legal avenues industry opponents use to challenge the practice that industry officials prefer to call "steep-slope mining," coal supporters and critics agree.
"These changes were unequivocally helpful," Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said in an interview. "By revising certain ambiguous regulations and contorted legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act, the administration has improved regulatory stability and predictability."
"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.
Campaigning for Coal
Buoyed by higher coal prices and an improving regulatory climate, West Virginia's coal companies recently took to the road to make their case for increased public support for mountaintop removal. Last month, at a workshop in Shepherdstown, W.Va., co-sponsored by state academic and elected leaders, industry executives argued that increased coal production could even help win the war against terrorism.
The workshop's theme: "The role of coal in economic and homeland security."
Coal boosters at the seminar touted the industry's present and future role as energy supplier to the nation, noting that the United States' vast domestic coal reserve generates half of the nation's electricity supply, and could continue to do so for centuries, at current consumption rates. Officials also played up the economic importance of an industry that pays $1 billion in direct wages in West Virginia and accounts for nearly 13 percent of the gross state product.
"Coal keeps the lights on," said Roger Lilly, marketing manager for Walker Machinery Co., a supplier of heavy equipment for mountaintop mines. "Coal today also is a cleaner, greener fuel, and it's our bridge to the future. We've got to show people what a great job we're doing."
Critics of the industry, however, feel anything but secure.
"It makes me furious," said Janice Nease, 68, a retired teacher who became an anti-mining activist after her village, a settlement of about 30 homes, was bought and destroyed to make room for a mine. "We keep on plugging away, but it's harder."
For years, Maria Gunnoe, 36, a waitress and single mother, watched nervously as coal companies hacked their way north along a ridge of mountains near the town of Bob White, W.Va. Then, three years ago, the first mining crews arrived on what she calls "my mountain," a rocky ridge called Island Creek Mountain directly above her house, her family's home for three generations.
"I sit here in the evening and listen to the equipment ripping and tearing at the mountain," Gunnoe, a coal miner's daughter, said as she sat on her porch on a late spring afternoon. "It's the same as if they were ripping and tearing at the siding of my house."
She has seen flooding wash away a third of her front yard and destroy the only bridge that connects her property to a public highway. Her car has been vandalized and her children have been bullied because of her outspoken opposition to the mine, she said. Her nerves are raw from the near-constant blasting, which continues even on holidays. "It sends the kids screaming, running through the house. The dogs hit the dirt," she said.
Far worse, she said, is the emotional toll. A peak that served as the natural backdrop for her entire life, the lives of her parents, her grandparents and her two young children is vanishing before her eyes. The family has received offers from coal companies to sell the small wood-frame cottage her father built. Gunnoe says she will never sell, but she wonders how long her family can hold on.
"The true cost of coal is here," she said quietly, staring off into the crisp mountain air, at her mountain. "We pay for it with our lives and our future. And also our past."