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Senate panel to hold hearings on fill rule

A U.S. Senate committee plans to hold hearings on the Bush administration's plan to rewrite federal rules that govern mountaintop removal valley fills.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee could schedule the hearing to investigate the proposal sometime next month or in June, a committee staff member said Friday afternoon.

"We will do a hearing, but one just has not been scheduled yet," said the staffer.

Environmental groups have been urging Committee Chairman James Jeffords, I-Vt., to review the proposal.

Jeffords is a strong environmentalist who has sponsored legislation that would force coal-burning power plants to greatly reduce their emissions.

He has also clashed repeatedly with the Bush administration over environmental policy.

"From global warming and clean air to Superfund, there seems to be a general slowdown in addressing important public health and environmental concerns," Jeffords said in an Earth Day speech earlier this week.

Under the fill rule proposal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would specifically be given authority to continue permitting mountaintop removal valley fills.

Historically, the corps has authorized valley fills through Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

But under that law, the corps is supposed to issue Section 404 permits only for "fill material." A series of court rulings have held that rock and dirt from mountaintop removal mines are "waste" and cannot be permitted by the corps.

After a ruling against the corps and the coal industry in 1999, the Clinton administration proposed to rewrite the rule to specifically legalize valley fills.

Now the Bush administration is pushing to finalize that proposal before Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II rules on another lawsuit that seeks to block new fills.

On Friday, Appalachian environmental groups harshly criticized a new draft of the rule being considered by the Bush administration.

The new draft drops language that would have ensured that garbage does not end up permitted as fill material by the corps.

In some cases, the draft says, "materials generally considered to be garbage or trash, such as recycled porcelain bathroom fixtures like toilets and sinks, or even junk cars, can be cleaned and placed in waters of the U.S. to create environmentally beneficial artificial reefs."

"This rule change, written by the coal industry and embraced by President Bush, would be laughable if it weren't so close to becoming actual law," said Jeremy Muller, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

"In this rule, the president says that dumping refrigerators, sinks and junk cars in West Virginia's rivers will create ‘environmentally beneficial artificial reefs.'

"Come on. Is he serious? Unfortunately, it appears he is."

Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has defended the proposed rule change.

"It's not a giveaway to the mining industry," she said on Earth Day. "It does not allow activity that isn't already underway."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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