Published on Thursday, April 13, 2000 in the New York Times
Environmentalists Warn Clinton of Reversal on Strip Mining
by Francis X. Clines
 
WASHINGTON, April 12 -- A coalition of 21 environmental groups complained to President Clinton today that the administration was about to side with the coal industry and undercut a federal court decision that would restrict the strip mining of Appalachian mountaintops.

"We ask you to ensure that no federal agency takes any action that would compromise our clean water laws by allowing the continuation of dumping of millions of tons of mining waste into our waterways," the group declared in a letter to Mr. Clinton after a meeting with administration officials.

At the meeting, the environmentalists said, the officials clearly signaled a threat to the court ruling last October.

In that decision, which Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, denounced as the potential death knell for the region's mining industry, Chief Judge Charles H. Haden II of Federal District Court in Charleston, W. Va., found that the state had for years violated federal mining and clean-water laws by permitting the blockage of hundreds of miles of vital valley streams with the waste from mountaintop mining.

State and industry officials defended the dumping as permissible and well controlled under mining and clean water laws. But a group of West Virginia residents and environmentalists successfully sued by complaining that communities in the mountain hollows were being devastated by the blockage of waterways.

Senator Byrd, state officials and union lobbyists sought to block the ruling in a rider to a bill last year. The plan was dropped after the White House warned that the president would veto the bill if it included the rider. But now, the environmental groups say, the administration appears on the verge of reversing that support of Judge Haden's finding, which is currently under appeal.

In the critical next step in the appeals process, the Clinton administration is scheduled to file a brief on Monday. At a meeting on Tuesday with Department of Justice legal specialists, the environmental groups concluded the brief would undercut the mountaintop decision, the environmentalists said.

Administration officials declined to discuss the likely contents of the appeal brief but contended that the issue was more complicated than suggested by the warning letter.

"We are considering seriously a variety of legal approaches to take to this and haven't definitively decided yet," Lois J. Schiffer, the assistant attorney general for the environment, who met with the groups on Tuesday, said in an interview.

Of the letter to the president, Ms. Schiffer said, "We think it misses that what we are doing is really interpreting two complicated and interrelated statutes in a way that protects both the environment and jobs." She referred to the laws controlling surface mining and clean waters.

"We of course would prefer a negotiated settlement here and we worked very hard at it," Ms. Schiffer said, "but we're not likely to be there by Monday."

Environmental groups said Judge Haden's ruling covered both laws and that talk of a negotiated settlement seemed to be an attempt at circumventing the decision or easing its effects.

Judge Haden shocked the coal industry in criticizing the "mountaintop removal" technique, in which coal near the surface is scooped up by mammoth machines after earth and rocks covering it are dynamited and bulldozed away.

"If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated," the judge said, ordering the West Virginia authorities to curb much of the waste dumping into waterways. "No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration."

The environmental groups said they feared that the administration, in an election-year attempt to protect jobs, would revive earlier arguments of the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies that the the waste dumping is legitimate under current law.

"The meeting was very discouraging," said Joan Mulhern, legislative director for the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund. "It would be ironic if a week before the 30th anniversary of Earth Day the administration decides it's O.K. to blow the tops off of mountains and bury streams and rivers to get coal."

Courtney Cuff, legislative director for Friends of the Earth, said that should the administration side with the coal industry, environmental groups would pursue the issue into the presidential campaign and seek a firm endorsement of Judge Haden's ruling from Vice President Al Gore.

In the letter to the president, the environmentalists declared, "We ask that you protect the environment and communities in Appalachia, not the coal industry."

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