A rare glimpse at how things go wrong
by Rikki Hall
The Bush Administration prefers to keep its corrupt policies and practices hidden behind executive privilege and government secrecy. While the dismal outcomes and poor decisions eventually become apparent, how we got there is rarely fully understood, even by the well informed. A recent decision published by the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) provides an opportunity to witness corruption in plain view.
Federal courts drove the agency into the light. Decisions in recent years forcing surface-mining regulators to more strictly enforce clean-water laws left OSM with only one viable pathway to laxity: an environmental impact statement (EIS). Drafting such a statement requires several stages of public input and published reports. As we saw with TVAâ’s land-use planning last year, such a process can result in an outcome respecting public will. Corrupting an EIS demands finesse and nerve. Whether OSM pulls it off depends largely on how the public responds to its decision.
At issue is the stream buffer zone, a 1983 ruling that restricts mining activity within 100 feet of a stream. Most of our nationâ’s environmental laws were written in the 1970s during a brief paroxysm of awareness coupled with an uptick in voting by the draft-eligible demographic. A 1979 law intended to keep strip mines from choking and acidifying streams was one of the last products of that era.
Under President Reagan, the law was weakened by executive fiat. A provision requiring coal operators to restore damaged streams discarded as too burdensome, and the buffer zone rule was created as a compromise. Bush set about to weaken the compromise. He appointed industry insiders to run OSM, and they started redefining words like â“waterâ” and â“fillâ” and reinterpreting laws. With this latest decision, OSM has redefined â“mining activityâ” so getting rid of debris left over after you blow apart a mountain no longer counts.
Because this was done publicly, the change had to be explained: If streams are off limits as a place to dump debris, the number of mountains that can be blown apart could be reduced by 90 percent. Since OSM is mandated to assure our nationâ’s coal supply is adequate, they can not tolerate such a constraint. All mountains that can have their tops blown off must have their tops blown off.
What little economic analysis can be found in the report argues against viewing Cumberland coal as a critical supply. Western coal reserves are considerably more plentiful and easier to mine. In the arid west, waterways can be better protected from potential impacts, and western coal has less sulfur content, so it burns cleaner. Still, OSM used this weak economic rationale to slash protective alternatives from consideration.
By contrast, ecological studies were given intense scrutiny. Alternative regulations that could reduce environmental impacts by 80 percent were discarded because they do not guarantee total protection. If you canâ’t save all the fish, donâ’t save any.
Normally, only flawed alternatives are rejected from environmental impact statements, but OSM rejected 12 of the 16 options proposed during the first phase of the process, leaving four nearly identical alternatives. It was not the alternatives but the reasoning that was flawed, yet this move allowed them to avoid â“detailed considerationâ” of better enforcement options. The preferred choice became a foregone conclusion, and the public was deprived of any decent alternative to rally behind when commenting on the decision.
By being highly critical of ecological arguments, uncritical of economic arguments, and willing to abuse the EIS process, heads of the federal mining agency are hoping to recoup their industryâ’s investment in the Bush campaigns. This time it is up to you, not the courts, to stop them.
Public Hearing, stream buffer DEIS
Weds, Oct 24, 6-9pm Goins Auditorium Pellissippi St TCC 10915 Hardin Valley Rd
Submit comments to:
OSM Reclamation & Enforcement
3 Parkway Center
Pittsburgh, PA 15220
Deadline: Nov. 23
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.
All content © 2007 Metropulse .