By Matthew S.L. Cate Staff Writer
HARRIMAN, Tenn. ‹ The state¹s top environment and conservation official urged the federal government Tuesday not to follow through with a proposed change to a 20-year-old mining-regulation rule.
Along with written and spoken comments from environmentalists entered into the public record at an open hearing here, the state asked the U.S. Office of Surface Mining not to allow mining activity near waterways.
Through a proxy who attended the hearing, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Betsy Child said the federal government should not go ahead with the new rule, which could allow dumping of mining-related debris into streams.
"We do not agree with the manner in which OSM intends to exercise (its) discretion in the proposed rule," said TDEC program manager Paul Schmierbach, who read from a letter by Ms. Child.
The room, filled with more than 100 opponents of the change calling for Gov. Phil Bredesen to make a stand against it, erupted in applause and
shouts of approval. No one spoke out in support of the proposed rule change.
The letter was written on official letterhead, which includes the governor¹s name. "We are encouraged by what we¹ve seen tonight," said Landon Medley of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, an environmental group well represented at the hearing. "We consider it a good first step."
Mr. Medley said the Bredesen administration needs to make sure to follow up on its promise to keep Tennessee¹s waters clean. "This is a critical
point," said Mr. Medley, chairman of his group¹s committee on strip mining.
The rule change, proposed Jan. 7, would allow mining-related debris to be dumped within 100 feet of nearby streams or in them as long as miners showed that leftover debris was kept to a minimum and that fill sites would not be designed any larger than needed. They also would have to show they considered alternative sites and that any sites to be filled would do minimal or no damage to the surrounding ecology.
If enacted, the rule will revoke a long-standing regulation the federal government maintains has been misconstrued and misused.
Federal officials did not speak at the hearing, having said its purpose was only to receive public comment.
But officials with the Office of Surface Mining have said the changes will reduce conflicts and improve consistency between current mining regulations and the Clean Water Act.
The rule change deals with various strip-mining techniques, such as cross-ridge mining. That mining practice has been bitterly opposed in Tennessee and was denounced repeatedly Tuesday night.
Also called mountaintop removal, cross-ridge mining involves removing a mountain peak to reveal a seam of coal. Miners then mine the seam and, once the coal is out, restore the peak to its original shape as best they can.
To do that, miners use the original dirt, rock and other natural debris. But there is always leftover material, which miners then dump into nearby valleys.
A 1,280-acre mining operation on Zeb Mountain in Campbell County is one such operation. Earlier this year, the Department of Environment and Conservation fined the Robert Clear Coal Co. for violating its water quality permit and polluting Dan Branch, a stream that flows from the site.
Environmentalists Tuesday night said they feared what might happen if the Office of Surface Mining changed its rule.
Ann League, a member of Save Our Cumberland Mountains who lives near the mining site, said she has watched the deterioration of Dan Branch under the current rules.
"There won¹t be a Dan Branch" with a revocation of the stream buffer-zone rule, she said. "There won't be any streams."
A draft environmental impact statement by several federal agencies found that about 1,200 miles of streams in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee directly were affected by mountaintop removal mining and valley dumps between 1992-2002. That is about 2 percent of the area¹s 59,000 miles of stream, according to the statement.
Opponents of the rule change said the damage to streams will increase if it is enacted.
In its proposed rule, the Office of Surface Mining stated that clarifying the circumstances when debris can and cannot be dumped in and around streams will better protect the environment by outlining enforceable standards.
Jeff Coker, a scientist from OSM¹s Knoxville office, said there is no deadline for the office to decide whether to enact or drop the rule change. The public comment period ends April 7.
"We¹ll review all the comments after that and make a decision," he said.
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