One of the last major environmental initiatives of the Bush administration will bring further devastation to Appalachian coal mining communities.

The U.S. Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining has recommended effectively repealing the Stream Buffer Zone rule, which restricts surface coal mining activities to protect a 100-foot corridor around flowing streams. The new rule, which is expected to be finalized in next month, will allow coal companies to dump massive waste piles known as "valley fills" directly into streams. The mining industry has long pressed for the change.

The current regulation, a product of the Reagan era, has often been circumvented due to lax enforcement. Consequently, more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or damaged by waste from mountaintop removal mining, which involves blasting off mountaintops to get to the coal below. The new rule, by allowing dumping that's now banned, will result in further environmental degradation.

By blocking normal stream flow, valley fills also worsen flooding. Families living in Appalachian mining communities already suffer sleepless nights when heavy rains are forecast, and they have seen their property values drop as the landscape is ruined by destructive mining practices.

"This latest move is the capstone to the devastating legacy the Bush administration has left to the communities in Appalachia and to all Americans who care about our nation's mountains and streams," Joan Mulhern, an attorney with the legal group Earthjustice, said in a statement Friday. "In just eight years this administration has allowed coal companies to obliterate mountain ranges that have existed for millennia. Today they are announcing plans to accelerate that destruction into the future and spread it nationwide."

OSM has issued a final environmental analysis of the proposed rule change, which has been under consideration for four years. The final regulation will be issued after 30 days of public comment and interagency review. Comments are due by Nov. 23; to submit comments online, click here.

There is some hope the rule could be reversed by the next White House administration, as both Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain have expressed opposition to mountaintop removal mining.

(This photo from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition shows flood damage in Bulgar Hollow, W.V. caused by mountaintop removal mining.)