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New Surface Mining Chief Cracks Down on Mountaintop Removal, Valley Fills

WASHINGTON, DC, November 18, 2009 (ENS) – The U.S. Department of the Interior is taking immediate actions to strengthen its oversight of state surface coal mining programs. The agency will issue federal regulations to better protect streams affected by surface coal mining operations, such as mountaintop removal mining, Interior officials announced today.

Mountaintop removal mining involves clearcutting native forests, using dynamite to blast away up to 600 feet of mountaintop to get at seams of coal, and then dumping the waste rock, called fill, into nearby valleys, often burying streams.

Asst. Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Wilma Lewis (Photo courtesy DOI)

“We are moving as quickly as possible under the law to gather public input for a new rule, based on sound science, that will govern how companies handle fill removed from mountaintop coal seams,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Wilma Lewis. “America’s vast coal resources are a vital component of our energy future and our economy, but we have a responsibility to ensure that development is done in a way that protects public health and safety and the environment.”

“Until we put a new rule in place, we will work to provide certainty to coal operations and the communities that depend on coal for their livelihood, strengthen our oversight and inspections, and coordinate with other federal agencies to better protect streams and water quality,” she said.

Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, OSM, is publishing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the protection of streams from the impacts of surface coal mining operations.

The notice requests comments on alternatives for revising the current regulations, including the controversial stream buffer zone rule issued in December 2008 in the final weeks of the Bush administration.

The 2008 stream buffer rule modified a 1983 rule that prohibited the dumping of waste rock within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream except when such activities “will not cause or contribute to the violation of State or Federal water quality standards and will not adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.”

The 2008 rule allows a surface coal mine operator to place waste rock into streams if the operator can show “it is not reasonably possible” to avoid doing so.

While the new rule governing the handling of waste rock is being developed, Interior is taking immediate actions to strengthen protections for streams and communities in coal country, provide regulatory certainty for industry, and beef up the Office of Surface Mining’s oversight and enforcement activities.

“We are moving as expeditiously as possible in the rulemaking process, but we will not take shortcuts around the law or the science,” said Joe Pizarchik, the new director of the Office of Surface Mining, who took office November 6. “Until we complete the new rule, we have to manage the shortcomings of the 2008 rule.”

Director Office of Surface Mining Joe Pizarchik (Photo courtesy OSM)

Pizarchik says his office will establish a new practice for reviewing permits under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act by coordinating with reviews and authorizations required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act.

In addition, the Office of Surface Mining will conduct independent inspections of operators with state-issued surface coal mining permits, a first since coal states assumed responsibility for their own regulatory programs.

OSM will conduct more oversight inspections, place greater emphasis on reducing the off-site impacts of mining, and review more state-issued surface coal mining permits and state permitting processes.

“Through tougher oversight and stronger enforcement of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, we are putting all hands on deck to ensure that Appalachian communities are protected,” Pizarchik said.

A long-time Pennsylvania mining regulator, Pizarchik is “well liked by industry and loathed by coal community groups and environmentalists,” many of whom opposed his confirmation, said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, in a statement in August before his Senate confirmation hearings.

Mountaintop removal coal mining in southwest Virginia (Photo courtesy Southwings)

“During his tenure at Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, Pizarchik has hewn a solidly pro-industry line on topics such as acid mine drainage, subsidence from longwall mining and using mining slag as valley fill,” PEER said, adding that it would be “mildly surprising for Pizarchik to ultimately take a strong environmental stand once confirmed.”

A letter from 125 coal country residents sent to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in advance of its hearing to consider the Pizarchik nomination objected to his selection, saying, “Mr. Pizarchik has promoted valley fills. In 2001, as primary regulatory counsel, Pizarchik supervised the drafting of PA DEP regulations implementing Act 114 that weakened the state’s stream buffer zone rule allowing the filling of stream valleys in PA.”

Mountaintop removal mining and valley fill in Appalachia has been the target of citizen protests, blockades, rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins in an intensifying campaign over the past two years.

Lewis and Pizarchik said today that the reforms they are proposing are consistent with the Obama Administration’s commitments in a June 11, 2009, Memorandum of Understanding among the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining.

The public is invited to review and comment on the proposed rulemaking and on OSM’s proposed Oversight Improvement Actions. The advance notice of proposed rulemaking will be sent to the Federal Register shortly. Beginning on the date of publication, comments may be submitted using the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov. The document has been assigned Docket ID: OSM-2009-0009.

The public is also invited to review and comment by December 18, 2009, on OSM’s proposed Oversight Improvement Actions, online at http://www.osmre.gov/topic/Oversight/SCM/SCM.shtm. The preferred method for submitting comments is via e-mail to Oversight@osmre.gov. Comments may also be mailed to: Administrative Record (MS 252 SIB), Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, 1951 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20240.

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