Environment: Proposed new federal regulations would reduce water quality impacts of mountaintop coal mining

Changes would slow decades of environmental destruction

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The scale of mountaintop mining in West Virginia is visible in this NASA Earth Observatory Satellite image, taken in 1984.

Staff Report

FRISCO — After decades of environmental degradation, the federal government has tentatively moved to reduce impacts to surface water and groundwater from coal mining.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released the proposed regulations after several rounds of stakeholder sessions. Agency leaders said the new rule would protect about 6,500 miles of streams nationwide over a period of 20 years, “preserving community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

Guided by the best-available science and utilizing modern technologies, the proposed rule would require companies to avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources, increase flood risk, and threaten forests.

It would require coal companies to test and monitor the condition of streams that their mining might impact before, during and after their operations. This feature would provide baseline data to ensure that operators could detect and correct problems if or when they arise.

“This proposed rule would accomplish what Americans expect from their government – a modern and balanced approach to energy development.” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The rule will help safeguard the environment, protect water quality, support the energy needs of the nation, and make coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future, Jewell added.

“We are committed to working with coalfield communities as we support economic activity while minimizing the impact coal production has on the environment that our children and grandchildren will inherit,” she said.

Hayes served as deputy secretary of the interior in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama:

“The current rules for mountaintop removal coal mining, which are more than 30 years old, fail to protect local communities that count on healthy streams and clean drinking water supplies,” said David Hayes, an analyst with an environmental think tank and a former deputy secretary of the interior in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“The proposed rule addresses key defects in the current rules, including bonding reforms so that taxpayers are not left footing the bill for environmental damage,” Hayes said.

The proposed Stream Protection Rule released includes reasonable and straightforward reforms to revise three-decades-old regulations for coal mining in order to avoid or minimize impacts on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.

The proposed rule is meant to keep pace with current science, technology, and modern mining practices. Once the public has had an opportunity to provide comments and the rule is finalized, it will better safeguard communities from the long-term effects of pollution and environmental degradation that endanger public health and undermine future economic opportunities for affected communities.

“The proposed rule would also provide the mining industry with something it has asked for time and again – regulatory certainty,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider. “The rule would make it clear which requirements apply to which types of streams, and how to determine what types of streams are present. Because of this clarity, companies can better prepare and plan.”

The proposed rule would also require companies to restore streams and return mined-over areas to the uses they were capable of supporting prior to mining activities, and replanting them with native trees and vegetation unless a conflicting land use is implemented.

An advanced copy of the proposed rule is available on the OSMRE website. The proposed rule is accompanied by a Draft Environmental Impact Statement , evaluating the environmental issues associated with the proposed rulemaking, including alternative regulatory approaches, and a Draft Regulatory Impact Assessment evaluating the economic impacts.

The proposed rule, upon publication in the Federal Register, and the associated DEIS and Draft RIA, will be open for public comment for a period of 60 days. Written comments will be accepted through the U.S. Mail, hand-delivered and couriered comments at OSMRE headquarters in Washington, D.C., and electronically through www.regulations.gov.

OSMRE will hold public hearings on the proposed Stream Protection Rule in five cities across the country beginning in September. Hearings will be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Lexington, Kentucky; Charleston, West Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and St. Louis, Missouri. The times and venues of the public hearings will be announced at a later date.

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