A mountaintop removal operation near Kayford Mountain, W.Va.
A mountaintop removal operation near Kayford Mountain, W.Va. - 
Listen To The Story


KAI RYSSDAL: Crews in Utah are working on what will be the last try at reaching miners trapped for more than two weeks now. In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy promised hearings into mine safety when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. But the Bush administration is already preparing new rules to encourage what some say is a safer and more efficient type of above-ground mining. It's called mountaintop, or strip, mining. The proposal isn't officially out yet — it's set to be released tomorrow — but our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports environmentalists are already worried.

John Dimsdale: To mine coal from the surface you have to shear off mountaintops. And that creates a lot of rock and rubble that fill up valleys and streams. Under 1983 rules, streams can't be disturbed unless the mining company proves no harm will come to wildlife or water quality. But the language is vague enough that courts have struggled with challenges for decades, says Robert Lee, a coal industry specialist with the energy consultant, CRA International.

ROBERT LEE: A technical reading of the legal material can lead to a number of highly divergent interpretations. So, you know, I think these kind of clarifications are necessary.

After six years of study the Interior Department is about to reveal its clarifications. Environmentalists are expecting looser restrictions on mountaintop mining — for several reasons. For one thing, coal has become more critical to the nation's fuel supply, given the price of oil. Plus, there's the Bush administration's cozy relations with the coal industry. And now there's added pressure since surface mining avoids the dangers of underground cave-ins and floods. But Joe Lovett with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment argues other consequences have to be considered.

Joe LOVETT: There's no question that deep mining is far less damaging to the environment than surface mining is. Especially the kind of surface mining we're seeing in central Appalachia that's laying waste to hundreds of thousands of the most productive and diverse temperate hardwood forests in the world.

There's a 60-day comment period for the proposed changes. A final rule isn't expected until next year.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

PHOTO GALLERY: Mountaintop mining