The Clinton administration said yesterday that it no longer thought a controversial legislative measure allowing West Virginia mines to dump waste in the state streams was necessary, after a federal judge stayed his decision prohibiting it.
The West Virginia legislators had been trying to attach a rider to one of this year's spending bills to block an Oct. 20 decision they predicted would devastate the state's coal industry. The administration agreed to support the provision last week, prompting criticism from both environmentalists and Republicans from western states.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that because Judge Charles H. Haden II stayed his ruling blocking companies from dumping waste associated with a mining technique known as "mountaintop removal," the administration would continue to work to balance environmental concerns with economic considerations.
"This stay achieves the goal of restoring our regulatory approach," Lockhart said. "Using the comprehensive process previously developed with the environmental community and the state, we will continue working to ensure that the streams and rivers of West Virginia remain protected."
Mountaintop removal uses explosives to tear away whole peaks to get at low-sulfur coal deposits underneath. While it is supported by allies of the coal industry as necessary to the state's economy, environmentalists complain the damage it inflicts on forests, waterways and nearby communities outweighs its benefits.
It remains unclear whether the West Virginia delegation, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D), will continue to push for the legislation. Byrd said in a statement he hoped the stay "may provide some breathing room for the time being to consider the options."
But environmentalists said Haden's ruling would have simply forced the administration to enforce laws on the books for decades and said Clinton's support for a stay was a setback.
"We are encouraged that the administration reversed its position on this rider," said Friends of the Earth legislative director Courtney Cuff. "But unfortunately, they are the ones failing to implement these laws in the first place. The net effect is that justice has been put on hold for the people, mountains and streams of West Virginia."