This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
On the way out the White House door, the Bush administration laid a spoiler of a rule change on the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The January regulation made it more convenient for "mountaintop removal" coal-mining operations to dump their debris, referred to as spoil, on nearby streams.
The rule did nothing to protect the Appalachians, or enhance the long-term future of the hard-pressed people who live in coal country. It was all about cheap coal, and making mountaintop removal easier.
So what if the cost includes spoiled streams, and ancient coves and hollows filled in with the bulldozed overburden of ridge tops? Cheap coal was king.
Still is – but the throne is shaking a bit in the early months of the Obama administration. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency said it might block 150 to 200 mountaintop removal permits that are pending with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared the previous administration's "stream buffer zone rule" – you might say "no rule" – legally defective. The government will ask a federal judge to vacate it.
Under the Bush rule, the only burden a mining company had to meet, to be allowed to deposit rock and dirt within 100 feet of a stream, was that alternative approaches were "unreasonable" – meaning the cost would be "substantially greater" than simply dumping on or near the stream.
We're talking dollar cost here, to the mining company, to the coal-burning utilities and to us, the power-consuming customers of those utilities. We're not talking about cost to the plants and animals of the lost valleys and streams, to the Appalachian residents who suffer degraded water and landscapes, or even, not to get too airy about it, to Mother Nature as a whole.