Groups reopen suit on mountaintop mining stream rule - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Groups reopen suit on mountaintop mining stream rule

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A coalition of organizations are reopening litigation against the Department of Interior's removal of a stream protection rule that the industry says infringes on the state's right to regulate its own clean water program.

The coalition reopening litigation consists of various citizen and environmental groups who said the Stream Buffer Zone Rule was removed unlawfully in a "midnight rulemaking in 2008." The rule was repealed under the George W. Bush administration and loosens restrictions on disposal of mining wastes.

The groups said the Obama administration has acknowledged the action was unlawful, but has not pursued issuance of a new stream protection rule.

"While the Interior Department misses its deadline and drags its feet on revoking the disastrous Bush rule and finally enforcing the surface mining law, Appalachian communities and families are suffering from the extreme pollution and destruction of mountaintop removal," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. "The Obama administration must not wait any longer to restore basic protections for waterways and families."

Coal River Mountain Watch executive director Vernon Haltom said there has been plenty of time to issue the rules. Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organizer Maria Gunnoe said advocates of the rule have waited four years and that the rule needs to be enforced.

"There's more sickness and death in our communities to the point that there is a community health emergency here in Appalachia," Gunnoe said. "It's pitiful that we have to sue the administration to get them to stand up to the coal industry, to stand up for our streams, our health, and the health of our children."

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he sees the issue as a matter of states' rights.

"This is a very broad, multi-dimensional suit that appears to be aimed at the state's control and administration of its own water quality and Clean Water Act," Hamilton said. "It seems to be challenging the way the state, and I mean the Legislature and the executive, have both concurred on the meaning of its water quality program and how it is to be regulated."

He said the state's legislative and executive branches have made it clear that water quality management in West Virginia should be managed by West Virginians. He said the state's current water quality program is adequate.

"If they follow through, it will no doubt be very disruptive, very costly, but hopefully at the end of the day, the courts will recognize state's rights and recognize the state is administering the water quality program here in the state of West Virginia in strict accordance with executive and legislative policy on the issue," Hamilton said.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hamilton added that the suit could have a "terrible impact" on the industry. He said he saw the coalition's actions as indicative of desperation for action from the administration.

"This can all be pared down to these groups insistence that mining be halted and all construction activities be halted in West Virginia," Hamilton said. "They've been hopeful here for the past four years that the Obama administration is able to get that done by enforcement and interpretation by the EPA primarily, and OSM, but it seems to me they are not patient in waiting for the Obama administration to, in essence, hijack the state's water quality program."

The Stream Buffer Zone Rule prohibits surface mining within 100 feet of streams. The coalition supporting the rule said the Bush repeal allowed coal companies to place valley fills and waste impoundments directly in streams.

Plaintiffs in the case are: Coal River Mountain Watch, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Sierra Club, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Waterkeeper Alliance and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

The group had originally settled in exchange for action promised by the Office of Surface Mining. Because that action had not been taken, the group filed a motion of intent to lift the stay on their suits. The suit is officially against the Department of the Interior with the National Mining Association joining as intervener.