Environmental groups across Appalachia spoke out at public hearings in four states on a Bush administration-backed proposal to relax restrictions preventing mining activity near waterways.
The groups oppose exempting valley fills , in which rubble from mountaintop removal mining is dumped in nearby valleys , from the 20-year-old rule restricting mining activity near streams.
“Enough is enough!” shouted Ellis Keyes of Letcher County during his turn at the podium. “The Office of Surface Mining should pull this (proposed) rule and enforce the law without exception.”
Though the groups had planned protests, cold rain spoiled their efforts in eastern Kentucky, leaving participants to hold up small yellow signs reading “Pull the Rule, Enforce the Law” inside and wear “I (heart) Mountains” buttons.
David Moss of the Kentucky Coal Association said the rule change will clear up ambiguities in the current law.
“The proposed clarification of the stream buffer zone rule is necessary in order to put an end to the regulatory uncertainty and litigation spawned in recent years by opponents of coal mining,” he said.
The meetings were held simultaneously in Hazard; Charleston, W.Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Washington, Pa. More than 125 people attended the public hearing held at a community college auditorium in Hazard.
Most speakers in Hazard, members of the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, opposed the rule change.
“This proposed rule is not in the best interest of the people of the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Tim Guilfoile, a member of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen. “I implore you to enforce the current regulation as it was intended.”
The public comment period on the proposal ends Nov. 23.
The rule change would hurt water supply to citizens and farms in the Appalachian coalfields, among other environmental impacts, Landon Medley, a resident of Van Buren County, Tenn., and a member of the Save Our Cumberland Mountains, said in a telephone interview.
“It’s more or less trial and error with what’s being proposed,” Medley said. “No one knows the long-term or short-term effects of this.”
Current policy says land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining unless a company can prove it will not affect the water’s quality and quantity. The new regulation would allow mining that would alter a stream’s flow as long as any damage to the environment is repaired later.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining proposed the change, saying the existing rule has been subject to varying interpretations by the courts.
OSM officials said the rule change would reduce the environmental impacts of surface coal mining and give coal operators “clear standards for mining near bodies of water.”
“They’re saying the rule change won’t expand mountaintop removal mining, which is not true,” Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va., said in a telephone interview. “What we’re asking is for them to pull the proposed rule and protect our water by enforcing the current rule.”
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said opposition by the environmental groups is expected.
“These groups are understandably upset with a rule that will remove the ambiguity that they have tried, and failed, to exploit,” he said by phone.