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What a Difference a Word Makes

Reported by Eleanor - August 17, 2004 -

According to a Washington Post article today, mountaintop removal is booming again, and the practice of dumping mining debris into streambeds is explicitly protected, thanks to a small wording change to federal environmental regulations. U.S. officials simply reclassified the debris from objectionable "waste" to legally acceptable "fill."

The "fill rule," as the May 2002 rule change is now known, is a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences.

Sometimes the change hinges on a single critical phrase or definition. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposals last year to control mercury emissions, it also moved to downgrade the "hazardous" classification of mercury pollution from power plants -- a seemingly minor change that effectively gave utilities 15 more years to implement the most costly controls. Earlier this year, the Energy Department helped insert wording into a Senate bill to reclassify millions of gallons of "high-level" radioactive waste as "incidental," a change that would spare the government the expense of removing and treating the waste.

The environmental and the human cost of this kind of greed cannot be measured. Maria Gunnoe, 36, a waitress and single mother, lives near Bob White, W. Va. A peak that served as the natural backdrop for her entire life, the lives of her parents, her grandparents and her two young children is vanishing before her eyes.

"The true cost of coal is here," she said quietly, staring off into the crisp mountain air, at her mountain. "We pay for it with our lives and our future. And also our past."

You can read the entire story at Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change.