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Press Room:  For Immediate Release 
Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet

November 2, 2009
Contact: Oliver Bernstein, Sierra Club, 512-289-8618

Interior Department Spins its Wheels on Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Inaction, Delay in Changing Bush-era Rule to Protect Streams Put Appalachian Communities at Risk and Put Focus on Environmental Protection Agency

Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of the Interior intends to delay issuing a rule that would protect Appalachian streams and communities from mountaintop removal coal mining, giving even more urgency to the need for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action to address this destructive practice. According to a filing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia late Friday, Interior intends to delay issuing a new stream buffer zone rule, a move that could mean devastation for more areas of Appalachia. The rule is needed to ensure that no mining waste can be dumped within 100 feet of a mountain stream, to protect the downstream waterways, communities, and wildlife from harm caused by stream destruction and pollution.

"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, Deputy Director of 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."

The statement filed by the Department of the Interior late Friday suggests a slow timetable for the agency to address mountaintop removal coal mining, starting with an "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that will likely have no on-the-ground impact. This statement sets no date for definitive action before 2011. This makes it even more critical for the EPA to revise Clean Water Act rules to stop the destructive practice of filling streams with mining waste.” 

In 2008 the Bush Administration severely weakened the stream buffer zone rule, a key protection for waterways near mountaintop removal coal mines. The buffer zone rule is promulgated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).

"Fixing the stream buffer zone rule remains a key component in the complex effort to end mountaintop removal coal mining," said Lorelei Scarboro of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. "The Department of Interior has so far dragged its heels in addressing mountaintop removal coal mining, and the EPA's recent steps to evaluate this destructive practice are now even more critical to the communities, streams and mountains of Appalachia."

While the Department of the Interior delays, mining companies are destroying Appalachia's mountaintops and its potential for a clean energy future. In southern West Virginia, Massey Energy recently began blasting on Coal River Mountain, a prime site for wind energy. Plans for the massive mine include dumping waste into valleys and waterways, something the Department of the Interior could help prevent by promptly issuing a strong stream buffer zone rule.

"We now have hundreds more buried streams and ten more years of reasons why the buffer zone rule should be enforced as the courts have ordered," said Cindy Rank with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "Intermittent and perennial streams must be protected from mining activities that obliterate both the quality and quantity of those irreplaceable headwaters that we all depend upon."

Mining companies have already buried close to 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams beneath piles of toxic waste and debris. Serious steps to end mountaintop removal coal mining would protect streams while helping to promote clean energy solutions and create good, green jobs in America.

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