Mining Stream Protections One Step Closer


     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Department of the Interior published a draft Environmental Impact Statement Friday to advance its proposed stream protection rule aimed at addressing impacts from surface mining. The not yet published proposed stream protection rule was signed on July 7, and is expected to “improve the balance between environmental protection and providing for the nation’s need for coal as a source of energy,” the agency’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) said.
     Specifically, the proposed rule would require mine operators to collect pre-mining data about the mining site and nearby areas to establish a baseline for the evaluation of impacts and the effectiveness of reclamation. A benchmark would be established defining “damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area,” and each permit would have to specify the point at which that level of damage would be reached, to ensure timely detection and correction of negative impacts to surface and groundwater. The proposed rule also contains provisions for restoration requirements and dispute resolution procedures.
     The proposed stream protection rule would provide long-overdue updates to 32-year old regulations for protecting communities and the environment around mining activities.
     “This proposed rule would accomplish what Americans expect from their government, a modern and balanced approach to energy development that safeguards our environment, protects water quality, supports the energy needs of the nation, and makes coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future,” Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. “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.”
     The development of the proposed stream protection rule has been long and controversial. In 1983, the OSMRE issued a rule that required a 100-foot “buffer zone” near streams.
     The interpretation of that rule varied significantly between environmental groups, the agency and mining states. In 2008, the OSMRE clarified the rule to allow excess waste material, or spoil, to be placed in streams, but added new requirements to reduce the environmental impacts of that activity. The 2008 stream buffer zone rule was then challenged in court by environmental groups, and subsequently vacated in the U.S. District Court of Columbia, effectively reinstating the 1983 version of the rule.
     The new proposed rule faces similar controversy. John Rumpler, with Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental organizations, said, “Some elements of the proposed rule are steps in the right direction, but stronger stuff will be needed to truly protect our mountain streams from the devastating toll of toxic coal mining waste. In particular, it is hard to imagine keeping mining waste out of our streams without maintaining the 100-foot buffer zone that is now in effect. We’ll be urging a final rule that fully protects our mountain streams, our health, and our wildlife.”
     Lignite Energy Council, a coal industry group, maintained that a National Mining Association economic impact analysis projected losses of up to 273,227 coal-related jobs and up to $20 billion in coal revenues if the proposed rule is finalized. The industry group said that a “one size fits all” approach would be completely unworkable in some areas, such as North Dakota.
     “In developing the proposed rule, we conducted extensive public outreach and were informed by the interests of coal country residents and others, including those directly and indirectly employed by the industry and those living with the impacts of mining on a daily basis,” OSMRE Director Pizarchik said. “That is why we are having a robust public comment process, to provide all stakeholders the opportunity to provide input on the proposed changes.”
     The proposed rule, once it is published, and the draft Environmental Impact Statement, will be open for public comments for 60 days. Public hearings will be held in Pittsburgh, Pa., Lexington, Ky., Charleston, W.Va., Denver, Colo. and St. Louis, Mo., beginning in September.
     “When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining,” Thom Kay, legislative associate for the Appalachian Voices environmental group said.

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