08/27/2007 05:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Pyrrhic Victory?

Washington D.C. -- Last Friday, the Bush Administration handed a seemingly huge payoff to the coal industry, which has been hammered all summer on Wall Street by a recognition that the tide of public and regulatory opinion in state after state is turning against the dirty fuel: the Administration proposed new regulations which explicitly authorized coal companies to continue mountaintop removal mining, even though federal judges have found the practice illegal. The Administration had hoped to bury the story with a Friday release, but the New York Times actually broke the story on Wednesday, and in doing so has made much more visible a reality that, however illegal, had remained largely invisible to most Americans. The fact is that, thirty years after Congress passed a law to regulate strip mining and protect streams and communities from its ravages, strip mining has been put on steroids and that Appalachia is literally being turned into a moonscape. (Check out these photos.) By issuing the regulation Bush actually stepped up public criticism and awareness. Local opponents of mountaintop removal called the regulation "a declaration of war on the Appalachian people."

The community response was prompt. Back in May, EPA had filed an enforcement action against Massey Energy Company that alleges thousands of violations of Section 402 of the Clean Water Act by Massey in connection with mountaintop removal and other surface mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. The government sought injunctive relief and damages -- a figure that could approach $2 billion. The Administration's new rule may have been designed to set the stage for a subsequent settling of this lawsuit; it was certainly designed to avoid the risk to Massey and other coal companies of any future such enforcement actions. So, the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, the Appalachian Center for the Environment, Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition today filed for the right to enter the EPA enforcement action as Intervenors, to ensure that the Administration does not settle the case out from under the Department of Justice. And it's very clear that there will be a long, protracted legal battle over the proposed new regulation -- which means that, for the first time, opponents of mountaintop removal may have a national fulcrum for their campaign against the devastating practice. And as Archimedes said, "give me a lever and a fulcrum and I will move the world."