Coal Tattoo

Enviros cut deal with Obama on buffer zone

Word just in early this afternoon that environmental groups have cut a deal with the Obama administration to drop — at least for now — their litigation over the controversial “buffer zone” rule governing mountaintop removal and other coal mining.

Here’s how Earthjustice put it in a news release just issued:

Several Appalachian conservation groups, represented by environmental public interest law firm Earthjustice, have decided to put on hold their lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s repeal of the “stream buffer zone rule,” which was originally designed to protect Appalachian streams from harmful practices used in surface coal mining.  The hold is based on an agreement of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to revise the stream buffer zone rule.  The groups will decide whether to continue litigation after the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees OSM, issues a proposed rule slated to come out Feb. 28, 2011.

Recall that there were two different lawsuits (see here and here) filed against the Interior Department over Bush administration changes that citizen groups said essentially gutted the buffer zone rule, a measure intended to protect streams from strip-mining damage but never enforced by federal or state agencies that allowed wholesale burial of streams with waste rock and dirt.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (pictured above) has announced plans to rewrite the buffer zone rule to do away with at least some of the Bush changes. but, as I’ve written before, the Obama administration has declined to say publicly how exactly it plans to rewrite the rule, but has backed the WVDEP’s reading of  the West Virginia rule, a possible indication of that the Obama rule will end up being much more industry-friendly than environmentalists had hoped.

In any event, the Interior Department’s plans to come out with a new rule made it unlikely that litigation over the Bush rule was going to be successful, and even less likely that a federal judge would consider hearing such a case a good use of his time.

So, environmental groups have entered into this settlement agreement with the Interior Department — in which they agree to put the litigation on hold until the Obama rule comes out. In turn, the Interior Department and its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement agreed it “shall make best efforts” to publish a proposed rule by Feb. 28, 2011, and a final rule by June 29, 2012.

Jennifer Chavez, an Earthjustice staff attorney handling the case, said:

We are very disappointed that OSM has continually failed to enforce the law to protect streams from the dumping of coal mining waste, including right up to the present day. We are now calling on the OSM to do its job and move swiftly to finalize a protective stream buffer zone rule that will prohibit dumping mine waste into streams.

OSM has consistently failed to enforce the stream buffer zone rule to protect streams.  Nonetheless, Secretary of the Interior Salazar says he remains committed to reducing the adverse impacts of Appalachian surface coal mining operations on streams.  That will require repealing the Bush administration’s changes to the stream buffer zone rule. We believe OSM must move swiftly to restore the 100 foot stream buffer zone rule, and to implement it with the force it is meant to have.