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While the nation's attention was focused on the nine lives lost in the deep coal mine of Crandall Canyon in Utah, the Bush administration has been busy pushing a form of strip mining in Appalachia that is lethal to land itself. It has proposed a rule that would explicitly allow mining companies to blast and bulldoze the tops of mountains and dump rock and dirt debris into streams and hollows. While this has been going on under existing rules and laws, critics of the dumping had fought it in courts. With the new rule, mine owners expect the legal fights to end.
In mountaintop removal mining, explosives or huge earth-movers strip off topsoil and rock to expose seams of coal prized for its low sulfur content. In some cases, loggers first cut and remove trees for lumber, but in other cases the mine owners don't bother with timbering first. When companies are finished mining, they are supposed to replace the topsoil, but they often do not, said Margaret Janes of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg, W.Va.
Also, the surface becomes so compacted by the heavy equipment that it is "like concrete," Janes said. It will take 200 to 300 years for trees to return to what has been the most diverse temperate hardwood forest in the world. Streams that are not filled in become highly polluted.
The alternative to trucking the debris to a nearby stream or hollow is to move it to unreclaimed mining sites that need fill. Janes acknowledges that this "might increase the price of the coal a bit." As things stand, she said, there is no financial incentive for companies to do the environmentally responsible thing. Companies compete to provide coal, the fuel for half the country's electricity generation, as cheaply as possible.
A rule adopted during the Reagan administration in 1983 was supposed to ban mining within 100 feet of streams, but neither state nor federal officials have ever enforced it rigorously. According to an environmental impact statement accompanying the new proposed rule, mining companies buried 724 miles of streams between 1985 and 2001. The Clinton administration worked to strengthen enforcement of the 1983 rule but did not have the new regulations completed before President Clinton left office.
A bill pending in Congress would reinforce the Clean Water Act's prohibition of dumping industrial waste - including mine waste - into streams. Congress should pass the measure, even at the cost of adding to the nation's utility bill. For too long, mining companies, electric utilities, and ultimately consumers have gotten away without paying the real cost of coal: devastated landscapes and a witches' brew of pollutants, from toxic mercury to the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming. The country should stop sacrificing Appalachian springs - and forests - to its addiction to cheap energy.
© 2007 The Boston Globe