Press Release | April 27, 2009

Interior Secretary Salazar seeks to vacate rule that allowed coal industry to ruin Appalachian streams

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that he has asked the U.S.  District Court in Washington D.C. to vacate the “stream buffer zone” rule passed in the waning days of the Bush Administration which allowed coal mine operators more leeway to dump rock, dirt and debris from mountaintop removal mining into streams.

His statement is in response to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center challenging the Bush rule filed on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association in January.  (The rule was also challenged by several other environmental groups in a separate lawsuit.)  A key claim in SELC’s lawsuit was that the Bush administration failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for impacts to at-risk species before issuing the rule, as required by the Endangered Species Act.  The Obama administration agreed, stating that the rule was “legally deficient” as a result.   In a press statement, Secretary Salazar acknowledged that the rule failed to adequately protect water quality and stream habitat on which coal communities rely.

Following is a statement from Deborah Murray:
“We welcome this news, and this positive action by the Obama Administration to get rid of this terrible rule.  As we pointed out in our lawsuit, a major legal defect in the Bush rule was the complete failure to comply with federal protections for threatened and endangered species, a significant concern  in the Appalachian watersheds.

“We hope that Secretary Salazar, even as he pursues a more comprehensive solution, will ensure that the 1983 rule is more rigorously enforced to protect water quality than it has been in the past.”

Following is a statement from Bart Melton of NPCA:
“This is great news for national parks in the coalfields of Appalachia. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area sits at the bottom of the most heavily mined watersheds in Tennessee and operations there are expanding daily, increasing the threat to the federally listed aquatic species that reside in the park, some of which are found only on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. We applaud Secretary Salazar’s decision to protect our nation’s national parks and wildlife.”

The original stream buffer zone rule, dating to 1983, restricted the dumping of mining overburden within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream, allowing such activities only upon finding that they “will not adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.” Even so, exceptions had been granted routinely, subverting the intent of the original rule.  The Bush rule loosened the criteria to allow such dumping whenever alternative options were deemed “not reasonably possible,” which it said included when the cost of pursuing an alternative “is substantially greater” than normal costs.

The Bush rule will be remanded to the Department of Interior for further review. In the meantime, OSM, under Salazar’s direction, will issue a policy document regarding application of the original 1983 buffer zone rule.  The agency will also solicit comments on a potential comprehensive new rule.

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