The Interior Department said Wednesday it will more closely monitor and review state-approved permits for mountaintop coal mining and also tighten the federal permitting process to better protect streams from mining waste.
The department said its actions are designed to serve as interim steps until a new federal regulation on mountaintop mining can be completed that will impose tighter restrictions on dumping the huge amount of generated fill dirt and waste near and in steam beds.
While America's vast coal reserves are a vital part of the country's energy mix, "we have a responsibility to ensure that development is done in a way that protects public health and safety and the environment," said Assistant Interior Secretary Wilma Lewis in a statement outlining the new actions.
In mountaintop mining, vast amounts of dirt are removed to get at the coal and it is then transported into low-lying areas and in some cases streambeds. It has been the source of heated arguments for years between mining interests and environmentalists who say it is destroying vast areas of Appalachia and contaminating streambeds and in some cases blocking water flow. The practice is widely used in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, producing 130 million tons of coal annually.
In 1983, the government barred coal companies from dumping fill dirt and waste within 100 feet of streams unless they could prove it wouldn't harm water flow or quality. The Bush administration eased that restriction last year, months before leaving office, to the applause of the coal mining industry and its unions and to the dismay of environmentalists.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, saying the Bush action "failed to pass the smell test." and he moved to restore the 1983 restrictions, but was thwarted last August when a federal judge ruled that Salazar had essentially changed the federal regulations without the required public input.
On Wednesday, the department began the formal process of revising the regulation to comply with the federal judge's ruling.
But with the regulatory change expected to take many months, the department said it was also taking "immediate actions" to strengthen the federal oversight of the mountaintop mining activities.
"Through tougher oversight and stronger enforcement ... we are putting all hands on deck to ensure that Appalachian communities are protected," said Joe Pizarchik, director of the department's Office of Surface Mining.
While states are given broad authority to regulate mountaintop mining, Pizarchik said his office would now more closely review state-issued permits, conduct independent inspections of mining companies that have been issued permits, and conduct more oversight inspections of how these activities may be impacting the environment and complying with federal clean water rules.
At the same time, the department said it was tightening the review of the federal permitting process to more closely involve other agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency to "ensure effective and coordinated compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act."
"Until we complete the new rule we have to manage the shortcomings of the 2008 rule," said Pizarchik.
The surface mining agency said it was formally beginning the process of revising the Bush-era regulation and in compliance with the federal court ruling is asking for public comment on alternative approaches that will govern how mining companies handle the fill dirt removed from the mountaintop coal seams.