Late Friday, EPA and the corps approved that rule change. Administration officials said that the change would "enhance the agencies' ability to protect aquatic resources by ensuring more consistent and effective implementation of [Clean Water Act] requirements."
In mountaintop removal, coal operators blast off entire hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves.
Leftover rock and dirt - the stuff that used to be the mountains - is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.
In 1977, Congress agreed to allow mountaintop removal when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
But the practice was supposed to be a very limited exception.
Generally, coal operators were required to restore mined land to its approximate original contour. Companies could remove entire mountaintops if they submitted plans to develop the land that they flattened.
In July 1998, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed a federal court lawsuit to try to curb mountaintop removal. The group alleged that numerous laws meant to control the practice were being ignored.
Six months later, EPA and other federal agencies agreed to settle a key part of the lawsuit. The conservancy would drop its effort to block all future valley fills. In exchange, regulators would conduct a detailed study to come up with ways to more strictly police mountaintop removal.
In a February notice announcing the study plans, EPA said the probe was "to consider agency policies ... to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects to waters of the United States and to fish and wildlife resources affected by mountaintop mining operations, and to environmental resources that could be affected by mountaintop mining operations."
EPA and the other agencies agreed to complete the study within two years. Besides the corps, the other agencies are the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In late 2000 and early 2001, EPA officials from the Clinton administration tried to release a draft of the EIS before President George W. Bush took office. The release was blocked, in large part because of complaints from Gov. Bob Wise, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, according to previously released government records.
'most serious, direct impact'
In November 2001, federal officials told Haden in a legal filing that they "are currently at work on a draft EIS, and will complete this draft as soon as possible."
The draft provided to the Gazette-Mail includes an incredible amount of detail about the extent of mountaintop removal to date. It also describes the findings of more than a dozen specific scientific reports conducted as part of the EIS.
The report says that "the most serious, direct impact from mountaintop removal" is the elimination of streams buried by valley fills.
From 1985 to 1999, at least 562 miles of perennial and intermittent streams "have been lost under valley fill footprints" in Appalachia, the study found. Regulators said that their count does not include ephemeral streams, because data was not available for them.
"Valley fills destroy stream habitats, alter stream chemistry, impact downstream transport of organic matter, and affect thermal and flow regimes available to downstream biological communities," the study said.
In terms of effects on forests, the draft study said that, "there is disagreement about what these changes in the terrestrial environment mean.
"The coal industry points with pride to its reclamation efforts in creating habitat for important game species such as turkey, quail, grouse, deer and boar; wetlands habitats in scattered ponds and depressions; and grassland and edge habitats for a variety of game species," the draft report says.
"The accuracies of these claims have been challenged by others who argue that [though] open habitat may be beneficial to game species, large contiguous patches of open land are not needed."
In a study on the potential cumulative environmental effects of future mountaintop removal, federal officials tried to estimate how much land would be damaged by future mining.
They found that, under a worst-case scenario, the coalfields of West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee could lose more than 7 percent of their forest cover under long-term mining scenarios.
That amounts to about 230,000 acres, or 350 square miles.
The amount of forest cover lost could be less, depending on potential future mining restrictions, and whether companies become successful in regenerating forests on mountaintop removal sites.
"The future mining scenarios will ultimately lead to an increase in the mining-barren lands and grasslands habitat types in the study area," the report says.
The report says that mountaintop removal "is not the only threat to the terrestrial environment of the study area."
Future timbering, the report says, is projected on more than 770,000 acres in the region.
"This is approximately 26 percent of the study area, and is approximately a three times greater surface area impact expected from mountaintop mining," the report says. "However, the duration of the impact is expected to be less with forest harvesting than with mountaintop mining due to the nature of the disturbance."
When coupled with future mining, there is the potential for more than 1,500 square miles of forest "to be lost in the study area," the report says.
"The study results suggest that approximately 35 percent of the existing forest of the study area will remain if the future mountaintop mining and forest harvests take place."
The report said, "Both deforestation and the 'forest fragmentation' that result[s] when mountaintop mining and valley filling interrupt the Appalachian forests is a significant concern from the standpoint of forest-interior wildlife species."The degree to which re-
establishment of healthy, functional forest ecosystems can occur is critical information to evaluate long-term, cumulative impacts of this activity, and the 'sustainability' of forest interior species in the mining region."
The study team found that, while, "historically, ... reclamation with trees has not been particularly successful, and that impediments exist, appropriate and proven techniques are available in the state programs if reforestation is selected as the post-mining land use.
"Multiple mountaintop mining/valley fill operations may severely impact the biodiversity and sustainability of terrestrial environments," the study found.
"Landscapes once comprised of forested habitat become a mosaic of meadow, shrubland and forest patches," it says. "Thus, the resulting landscape takes on a checkerboard pattern and habitat patches become isolated."
In Monday's Gazette: The Bush administration wants to provide coal operators with "one-stop shopping" for mountaintop removal permits.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.