IN OTHER WORDS: More sadness

The Bush administration is writing one more sad chapter in the long, tortured history of Appalachia’s coal-rich hills. Last week, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining proposed a revision, amounting to a repeal, of one of the last regulatory protections against an environmentally ruinous mining practice called mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is just what the name suggests: enormous machines scrape away mountain ridges to expose the coal seams. The leftover rock and dirt are then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams. Almost 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried this way and hundreds of square miles of forests damaged.

No recent administration has made a serious effort to end the dumping, largely in deference to the coal industry and the political influence of Robert Byrd, West Virginia’s senior senator. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said in the last month that they oppose mountaintop removal, which may explain the administration’s mad dash to rewrite the rule before a more conservation-minded administration arrives in town. Their opposition also inspires slim hopes among environmentalists that Stephen Johnson, the EPA’s administrator, would withhold his approval. That would be an enormous surprise, but also enormously welcome.