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Much has been made about the Bush administration’s 11th hour repeal of a key rule meant to keep coal-slurry waste out of Appalachian streams — a repeal that went into effect this month. But check out what’s happening in northern Appalachia — the capital of longwall coal mining, a little-known but devastating extraction method that collapses the ground beneath homes. The mining industry is quietly pushing to downgrade “high quality” streams in a move that’s giving environmentalists there nightmares.

As environmental groups in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C. work to reverse the January 12 repeal of the so-called “stream buffer zone” rule — a tough restriction against mountaintop removal mining — Pennsylvania advocates are organizing to halt what they say is the longwall industry’s more subtle loosening of stream protections. In the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, two companies — Consol Energy and Foundation Coal Holdings — are trying to change the stream classification known as “high quality warm water fishes” on tributaries running close to their longwall mines. The companies have petitioned the state’s environmental court to downgrade four streams to the less protective label of “warm water fishes.” That means the companies wouldn’t have to abide by the most stringent pollution controls and water-quality standards designated for tributaries supporting sensitive fish and insects.

Activists see the push as a worrisome precedent that would allow not just the coal industry, but any industry to reclassify streams in order to pollute them, which obviously undermines the purpose of the classification system.

Tom Hoffman, a Consol spokesperson, previously said he doesn’t view the two reclassification petitions as a sign of a new industry strategy, but the company did not respond to a request for further comment from PaperTrail.

Word of this latest proposal first surfaced last winter, when activists discovered that Consol had filed a petition with the environmental court to downgrade a stream that winds alongside the slurry ponds that hold its toxic coal waste. Foundation soon followed suit, filing a broader petition last February to knock down the tag on a 44,000-acre watershed. In August, the firm scaled back its proposal and has focused instead on the runs flowing where it wants to build a new longwall mine.

Administrative judges will rule on the company petitions some time next summer after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection completes field investigations and makes recommendations.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.