WASHINGTON - In a move that critics say threatens waterways throughout the nation, the Clinton administration is proposing a change that would allow mining and construction waste to be dumped into rivers, streams and wetlands.
A group of Republican members of Congress and environmental activists called on the White House yesterday to withdraw its proposed change to the 1972 Clean Water Act, which, they argue, is intended to appease Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The powerful West Virginia Democrat is a fierce protector of the practice of mountaintop coal mining, which he says provides thousands of jobs in his state.
The administration helped defeat Byrd's effort last year to win legislative protection for the disputed mining practice, which causes mountain streams to be buried in rubble. But the proposed change would achieve the same goal without congressional approval and would apply more broadly throughout the country.
"This is an outrage: to think that we would allow the tops of mountains to be taken down and then put into our streams and our creeks and our valleys because of a powerful person," protested Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "If we allow this to happen, then we are basically negating most of our environmental laws."
The White House contends that it is trying to strengthen protections for rivers and streams while "safeguarding economic opportunities in West Virginia," said George T. Frampton Jr., acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Last year, the Clinton administration did not object to the mountaintop mining process itself but opposed Byrd's tactic of trying to overrule a court decision against it. Now, officials say, they are trying to answer his concerns through the regulatory process.
The proposed rule change would for the first time permit mining and other industrial waste to be used as fill in waterways. It would limit the practice to smaller streams that are dry more than half the year. But the lawmakers argued that in seeking a compromise for the coal fields of Appalachia, the administration is gutting critical environmental safeguards that apply throughout the nation. They were supported in their contention by outside advocacy groups, including Friends of the Earth and the National Resources Defense Council.
"In most small communities throughout America, bulky waste disposal is the biggest problem, tree stump clearance, that kind of demolition material," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, also a Connecticut Republican. "These changes would open this up so that kind of material can be dumped in modest wetlands and small streams.
"The degradation of our water quality system usually doesn't take place by filling the Potomac River or Connecticut River," she said. "It takes place through filling and polluting all the little feeder streams."
A spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said that the critics had "grossly mischaracterized" the potential effect of the rule change. The broad protections of the Clean Water Act would remain in place, Elliot Diringersaid.
The proposed change in the definition of what is acceptable fill material "will be used on a case-by-case basis as part of the permit review process, and it will be only one piece of that review process, along with other parts of the Clean Water Act," Diringer said.
Mountaintop mining, used most often in Kentucky and Tennessee in addition to West Virginia, involves blowing up the tops of mountains to provide easier access to the coal within. The debris topples into streams and valleys.
More than 1,000 miles of waterways in West Virginia have been buried by the process, turning the countryside into a "moonscape," according to Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The proposed regulatory change, which would allow permits to continue to be issued for the process, have been under consideration for months while the administration has been seeking public comment. The comment period ends Wednesday.
Twenty-three Republicans, including Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, signed a letter to President Clinton in March, urging him to "vigorously oppose any attempts to undo critical and long-standing environmental protections." They say they have not been encouraged by the White House response and hope to call attention to the issue before it is too late.
Shays said that if Clinton allowed the change to take effect, he and his colleagues would seek to overturn it through legislation. He acknowledged that it would be difficult because it would be easy for Byrd to block such a bill from coming up for a final vote.
Byrd's office declined requests for comment on the issue yesterday. He was highly public last fall about his desire to prevent environmentalists from blocking new permits for mountaintop mining.
Ruling in October on a lawsuit brought by environmentalists, U.S. Judge Charles H. Hadden II concluded that the practice of filling stream valleys with mining waste violated the Clean Water Act and federal regulations.
Hadden barred West Virginia officials from issuing new permits for dumping the waste but suspended his ruling to allow for appeals that are now under way.
Byrd, a 42-year veteran of Congress and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, held up an agreement on a final spending bill that is needed to finance the government, in hopes of persuading his colleagues and the White House to support an amendment to void Hadden's ruling.
Clinton tried to stay out of the fight. But after Shays and other Republicans spotlighted the issue, the White House threatened a veto if a spending bill was passed with the Byrd amendment.
"Fie on the White House! Fie!" Byrd shouted in protest from the Senate floor in November. "As a result of White House opposition, thousands of coal miners ... are facing a bleak and uncertain future."
The White House support turned out to be short-lived, complained Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth.
"What they gave us last year, they are taking away now," he said.