In the bustle of the expiring congressional session, a group of coal-state senators is engineering a legislative end-around to amend the strip mine control law of 1977.
Weakening amendments that were passed by the Senate last year, but blocked by the House Interior Committee, have been revived by Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, (D-W.Va.).
To avoid another roadblock at the Interior Committee, the amendments this time have been attached to a House-passed maritime cargo tonnage bill over which Interior has no jurisdiction.
The effort last year and again this month is the outgrowth of bitter complaining by strip mine operators that the reclamation law is hamstringing coal production with unnecessary regulation.
But environmentalist and congressional critics of the industry contend those arguments are a smokescreen for a desire to return to pre-1977 mining practice with minimal land reclamation.
"There's no question about this," said Ed Grandis of the Environmental Policy Institute. "This is a very serious effort that Sen. Byrd has got going."
The White House, meanwhile, and several senators who fear the 1977 law is on the ropes have mounted a counter offensive on Capitol Hill to Thwart the Byrd forces.
"Those amendments are being held in the House because they aren't any good," said Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.). "It is terribly wrong to pressure the Senate this way because there is a danger this will gut the law." p
Administration representatives told environmentalists at a meeting Monday that the Interior Department intends to work to prevent passage of the amendments.
And in the House, Interior Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) has reiterated his opposition to the Senate amendments, which he has called "bad political medicine."
But the new Senate ploy is aimed at bypassing Udall's committee where last year's amendments stalled when proponents could not muster sufficient votes.
The amendments remained in limbo until Byrd and other coal-state senators revived them in the past few days, seeing a chance to move them by Udall in the dying days of this session as part of another measure.
Byrd sponsored a luncheon Monday for a dozen or so Democratic and Republican senators to grease the legislative wheels. Each agreed to lobby colleagues to get the amendments passed.
Melcher said he and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) will attempt to derail them because they fear the proposals could lead to environmental chaos in the coal fields.
"These amendments could case all federal regulations to be stricken and leave it to the states to draw up their own regulations. The courts would have to decide the legality of each of these and it would take decades to unravel," Melcher said.
The amendments, passed 68 to 26 last year, would permit each of 24 states in which coal is strip mined to decide how the federal law should be followed.
State officials, led by West Virginia Gov. John D. (Jay) Rockfeller IV, and strip mine operators have alleged that Interior's Office of Surface Mining has produced a mass of confusing and impossible regulations that impede mining.
Their approach, embodied in the amendments, would allow each state to go its own way without the federal regulations, as long as it followed the intent of the law.
"Arbitrary regulations which distort the intended balance of the surface mining act will be reduced, and states will be able to form reclamation plans based on their own unique circumstances," Byrd said.
"It is time for a clear signal to be given once again to the House on this matter."
The amendments began last year as an innocuous extension of deadlines for states to come up with enforcement plans, a move supported by the administration, by now made less pressing as states near compliance.
Opposition developed, however, when Sens. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) and Mark O. Hatfield (r-Ore.) added new language limiting federal regulatory power.
"This legislative process took seven years to get a good law," Melcher said. "You can lose it all in a matter of weeks through pressure tactics like this."