The Interior Department will leave in place George W. Bush-era changes to a rule designed to protect streams from mountaintop-removal coal mining until 2011, according to court documents filed by the Obama administration Friday.
A new "stream-buffer zone" rule could "optimistically" be finished by early 2011, Glenda Owens, acting director of Interior's Office of Surface Mining, said in papers filed Friday.
Interior will formally announce the start of the rulemaking this month and open a 30-day window for public comments, according to the court papers. Then, the mining office will move "as expeditiously" as possible to finish the rule, but no formal timeline can be set without knowing the volume of public input, Owens said.
The papers were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where environmental groups sued over changes to the stream-buffer rule, which requires a minimum 100-foot buffer between streams and mining operations.
The Bush administration granted exemptions to that rule for waste dumps and other activities that environmental groups say are polluting the waterways. The groups sued over the changes and hoped the Obama administration would cancel them. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April moved to do so on the grounds that their environmental impacts had not been adequately analyzed.
But a federal judge in August rejected Interior's authority to do so without going through a full rulemaking process and accepting public comment (E&ENews PM, Aug. 12).
Environmental groups blasted the 2011 timeline, saying Appalachia will suffer in the meantime.
"The Department of the Interior is spinning its wheels, leaving this Bush-era rule in place while Appalachia's mountains, streams and communities continue to be destroyed," said Mary Anne Hitt, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "We urge the Department of the Interior to stop wasting time and to quickly issue a stronger rule to protect streams."
Environmental groups' hope for quickly curbing mountaintop-removal mining now shift to U.S. EPA, which regulates the practice through Clean Water Act permits. EPA has frozen all 79 active applications for new mountaintop-removal mines and last month revoked a permit that the Bush administration had issued in 2007.
EPA, Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers -- which administers the Clean Water Act permits under EPA oversight -- are preparing an inter-agency plan to reduce the environmental damage caused by mountaintop-removal mining.