Depending on how it's done, mining can be among the most unfriendly of industries to the environment. When surface mining, in particular, is used, the pollution and the scars on the land are sometimes indelible. Consider the gouges left in the Sierra Nevada by 19th-century hydraulic mining, or strip-mines in the West and in the hills of Appalachia.
Yet it's a crucial industry. Much of what it produces helps keep the economy humming. But that energy necessity can't simply roll over a public demand for cleaning up mining wastes and wasted landscapes.
So kudos to federal district court Judge Charles H. Haden II, who recently ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers could no longer issue permits allowing mining companies to dump their waste into Appalachia's valleys and streams.
The waste, untold tons of rock and dirt, results from a technique called mountaintop-removal coal mining. Whole tops of mountains are blasted and bulldozed away to expose coal seams. The companies are required to restore the mountain contours, but tons of excess debris stay in the valleys where it's pushed. Some 1,000 miles of streams have already been diverted and polluted by mining waste.
How many more miles of streams would be affected if the practice went simply unchecked?
Judge Haden, who held that the dumping in streams is illegal because it is "contrary to the spirit and letter of the Clean Water Act," isn't the only one trying to apply the brakes. A number of members of Congress are sponsoring legislation to overturn a regulation just issued by the Bush administration that would remove any restrictions on the dumping.
Some of the same legislators are also drafting a bill to rein in another example of mining excess this one a 130-year-old federal law that gives hard-rock mining companies virtually unlimited access, for underground or surface operations (though the latter predominate), to vast expanses of federal land in the West. No royalties to the government, no clean-up rules, no ability of federal regulators to blow the whistle if environmental damage is too great.
State and local officials are fed up with unregulated mining. In a number of Western states they're taking steps to put on the brakes by holding back water permits, for instance.
Curbing destructive coal-mining practices or reforming a wildly outdated mining law won't be easy. These industries have plenty of friends on Capitol Hill and in the administration. But the time to strike a better balance between extracting from the land and protecting it is now.
Consumers of coal energy and minerals can bear the higher prices needed to pay for a clean-up of mining's destruction.