The Clinton administration has sided with West Virginia Democrats in their efforts to permit the dumping of mining waste into the state's streams, angering conservation groups and complicating the White House's efforts to persuade Congress not to relax other environmental laws.
White House officials privately indicated they are going along with the coal industry's use of a controversial strip mining technique known as "mountaintop removal," in part to accommodate the Senate Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.). Byrd and other West Virginia lawmakers are considering attaching the strip mining language to one of the remaining bills funding government programs this year.
But the move comes as President Clinton is vowing to pressure Congress to remove other provisions he considers anti-environment from such spending bills. Clinton vetoed one bill in part because it included a provision exempting Alaska salmon fishing from the Endangered Species Act, and he has threatened to veto another because it includes several such riders, including one expanding the amount of waste western mining companies are permitted to dump.
In a meeting Thursday with White House officials, several environmental groups warned the administration that backing Byrd could not only undermine Clinton's budget posture, but also threaten Vice President Gore's standing with a key Democratic constituency.
"It's outrageous that the White House has been promising to veto anti-environmental riders and here we have a rider that threatens entire mountains and it looks like they are not going to oppose it," said Anna Aurilio, a staff scientist at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
White House officials said they are simply trying to return things to where they stood before a federal judge effectively negated an agreement between federal and state agencies on how to regulate the mining industry in West Virginia.
"The administration has made clear its opposition to anti-environmental riders," said an official, "and has made clear in this case that the only thing we are willing to entertain is language that returns us to the status quo, the regulatory approach that was agreed to by the environmentalists."
Byrd and West Virginia lawmakers have defended their efforts on strip mining as an attempt to protect the state's economy from the federal court ruling that the industry says could cost thousands of jobs.
At issue is an increasingly common form of mining in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal uses explosives to tear away whole peaks to get at valuable deposits of low-sulfur coal beneath the surface; though supported by labor unions and politicians who say it is critical to keeping miners employed, the practice is controversial because of the damage it can do to forests, waterways and communities.
On Oct. 20, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II concluded that the common practice of filling stream valleys with mining waste from mountaintop removal violated the Clean Water Act and federal rules implementing the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. He barred the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection from issuing any new permits that would allow mining spoil to be dumped in streams that run at least six months a year.
Yesterday, Haden decided to stay his ruling, pending an appeal to a higher court. But West Virginia lawmakers have been considering legislative language to overturn Haden's decision, and they have secured White House assurances that Clinton will not stand in their way.
Haden's decision "has left thousands of West Virginians wondering about the future of their jobs," the state's congressional delegation said in a statement.
In light of the judge's stay of his order, a White House official said last night, "We are evaluating whether there is any need for legislative language at all." And Byrd last night said the judge's decision "may provide some breathing room for the time being to consider the options."
The practice of attaching riders dealing with environmental issues to some of the 13 annual appropriations bills has become a centerpiece of this year's budget disagreement between the administration and Congress. Environmental groups say they have catalogued more than 50 appropriations riders that they consider anti-environmental.
Ironically, one of the Clinton administration's main rhetorical targets in opposing Republican efforts on this score has been a provision concerning how much waste hardrock mining companies in the West can dump in adjoining millsites. In part because of that provision, the White House has promised to veto the Interior Department appropriations bill.
Clinton referred specifically to that mining proposal when he traveled two weeks ago to the George Washington National Forest to announce a plan for greater protections of national forests.
"Once again, the leaders of the Republican majority are polluting our spending bills with special-interest riders that would promote overcutting in our forests, allow mining companies to dump more toxic waste on public land and give a huge windfall to companies producing oil on federal lands," Clinton said.
The administration's new support for the West Virginia rider has provided political fodder to some Republicans. Yesterday, GOP Reps. Don Young (Alaska) and Barbara Cubin (Wyo.) wrote House leaders to insist on hardrock mining language "as a quid pro quo" for West Virginia language.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said yesterday that he supports the change. "What's right for Bobby Byrd is right for the western members as well," Armey said.
Staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.