Mine Rule Change Gets Little Attention

By Ken Ward,Jr

(This article appeared in the Charleston Gazette on August 22, 2000)

Over the last year, talk among coal industry officials and environmentalists has revolved around the stateís stream buffer zone rule.

But Monday night, a proposal to weaken that rule drew no comments during a Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) public hearing.

Two coal industry lobbyists were the only speakers at the hearing on DEPís plan to review several state strip mine regulations.

Among those proposals is one that would eliminate from the buffer zone rule specific stream protections cited by a federal judge who issued a ruling to limit mountaintop removal mining.

Neither industry lobbyist mentioned the buffer zone rule in their oral remarks. Written comments from the West Virginia Coal Association said, "No comment," next to that proposed change.

"I'm surprised there wasnít any opposition view," said John Ailes, deputy chief for DEPís Office of Mining and Reclamation. "There hasnít been a whole lot of feedback here."

Under federal strip mine rules, no mining activity is allowed within 100 feet of perennial and intermittent streams.

Mine operators can be exempted from this buffer zone rule if they show that mining will not adversely affect water quantity and quality or cause water pollution violations.

Currently, the stateís version also limits buffer zone exemptions to when DEP finds that mining will not adversely affect "normal flow or gradient of the stream, adversely affect fish migration or related environmental values, [and] materially damage ... the stream."

In October 1999, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II cited these specific stream protections when he ruled that coal operators could no longer dump waste rock and dirt into perennial and intermittent streams.

DEP Director Michael Castle proposed to eliminate the specific protections, but said the move had nothing to do with Haden's ruling.

After Mondayís hearing, coal lobbyist Ben Greene of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, said he supports Castleís proposal.

"It just brings it back to the federal regulation," Greene said. "I don't know where we got all that other stuff, anyway."

During the hearing, Greene criticized several other DEP proposals to tighten restrictions on releasing reclamation bonds. "This just needs to stay the same," Greene said.

Also Monday night, another DEP hearing on new rules to regulate limestone and other quarries drew only one speaker. Mike Clowser, a lobbyist for quarry companies, said the industry looks forward to negotiating details of rules with DEP before they are approved by the Legislature.

"We would like to work with DEP to the point that these are agreed-to regulations," Clowser said.