Congressional Budget Rider Allows Continued Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining, Toxic Waste Dumping

Posted Jan. 7, 2015

MP3 Interview with Chris Espinosa, legislative representative with Earthjustice, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

mtr

Before it recessed for the end-of-year holidays, Congress included several riders in its funding bill to keep the federal government operating for another year. One such rider in the so-called "Cromnibus" budget prohibits the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies from using funds to make any changes to a regulation put in place by the George W. Bush administration, that allows waste from mountaintop removal coal mining to be dumped in valleys below, often destroying streams that provide drinking water to the people of Appalachia. This so-called "overburden" includes rocks, dirt and anything else that was part of the mountain before it was blown up to gain access to the coal seams beneath.

Environmentalists and local residents of West Virginia and Kentucky, where the vast majority of mountaintop removal blasting occurs, have been trying for years to remove this definition of "fill material." The inclusion of this rider in the 2015 budget bill makes that goal even harder to achieve. Scientific studies have found links between mountaintop removal operations and negative health impacts for residents of nearby communities, including cancer and birth defects. Toxic chemicals produced by this mining method have also been found to directly kill aquatic species or disrupt their life cycles.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Chris Espinosa, legislative representative with the group Earthjustice, which has filed several legal challenges against mountaintop removal mining. Here, he explains the history of the waste dumping rule, efforts to change it and the challenges ahead for opponents of this destructive form of coal mining.

CHRIS ESPINOSA: The history of it was the original enactment of the Clean Water Act included provisions that would allow usage of dredge and fill material. Now, what they had incepted with the Act was that it would be used to build dikes and dams and bridges without violating other provisions of the Clean Water Act. The Bush administration moved forward with a redefinition, if you will, of what fill material meant and what they included in that definition is mining "overburden." Now, this is what allows mining companies and mountaintop removal mining projects going forward is all the toxic waste that comes off these exploded mountaintops gets dumped into rivers and streams.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I thought this rule was changed under the Obama administration.

CHRIS ESPINOSA: Unfortunately, they haven't changed the rule yet. That's what we're hoping that they will do, is more accurately interpret the intent of the act and remove "mining overburden" from the definition of "fill." What we see in the Omnibus and what we've seen in previous funding bills is Congress' attempt to block that from happening. The way they do that is they restrict any funding to the Army Corps of Engineers toward a revision of this misguided definition. What actually ended up happening is the Bush administration definition made it into the regulation and we've been urging the Obama administration to change that and return it to its original intent. But as of yet, the Corps hasn't taken any steps to do that, partly because Congress has been prohibiting them through funding riders from even taking a look at it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Chris Espinosa, I've reported on studies from the past couple of years that show higher levels of birth defects and serious illnesses in communities near mountaintop removal (MTR) sites.

CHRIS ESPINOSA: You know, every day that goes by we're finding more and more scientifically peer-reviewed studies indicating the health impacts from all the toxic harm that comes off of these MTR sites. And so with all of that mounting evidence, in terms of the environmental and the public health impacts, the Corps has been urged to review and redo this definition. And unfortunately they've been blocked from doing that, and what was included in the Cromnibus is the enacting legislation that prohibits them from reviewing this regulation.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In other words, this thing that went into the Cromnibus basically gave the force of law to what had been just a definition put in place by the Bush administration, but this makes it even harder to change it, is that right?

CHRIS ESPINOSA: Yeah, that's exactly right. So, by them including this spending prohibition at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it all but assures that the definition will not be changed.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, what can be done to fix this?

CHRIS ESPINOSA: At this point, it's possible that it can be changed through legislation. We could continue to work with legislators who understand its impact, and try to ensure that this rider doesn't make it into the next funding bill. But when you look at the dynamics of the Congress, and the shift in its makeup, it will be very difficult to keep this rider from its continuation and to address this regulation that needs to change for the sake of public health and the environment.

Learn more about Earthjustice by visitingEarthjustice.com.

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