AFTER 6 YEARS OF TALK, INTERIOR DEPT. FINALLY RELEASES NEW COAL MINING RULES TO MIXED REVIEW

Jul 19, 2015 by

 

 

Environmental advocates give them a mixed review.

In this Oct. 17, 2014 photo, an unreclaimed strip mine just across the state line from Kentucky's Harlan County stands in Virginia as seen from the Kentucky side of Black Mountain in Lynch, Ky. Most of Harlan County’s "big coal," seams thick enough for a worker to walk upright in, has long since been mined. According to the Energy Information Administration, most of what's left,  9.1 billion tons, can only be realistically gotten by surface or "strip" mining. Around here, the most cost-effective method is "mountaintop removal," in which the hills are blasted apart to expose the coal beneath. But stricter interpretation of clean water and other regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts in recent years has all but ended the practice. (AP Photo/David Goldman) WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior issued long-awaited regulations on Thursday for protecting streams from the adverse effects of surface coal mining.

The proposed rules, issued by the department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, mark the first major update to the surface mining regulations in 32 years. They will require coal companies to do before and after environmental analysis at mining sites, mandate that companies invest in restoration work like replanting trees, and increase requirements for monitoring of impacts during mining operations. The rules have been in the works for six years.

“A lot has changed since rules were written in the early 1980s,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a call with reporters on Thursday. The new regulations, she said, prioritize “protecting and restoring the environment while helping meet the nation’s energy needs.”

Janice Schneider, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, described the proposed regulations as “commonsense and straightforward reforms” that are “guided by the best available science and take advantage of the advances in mining technology.”

Eight environmental groups said in a joint statement that while the proposed rules will update stream protections in some important ways, they will also undermine previous rules that called for a 100-foot buffer zone to keep mining away from streams. The George W. Bush administration had sought to get rid of the buffer zone protections, and environmental groups have fought those rollbacks.

“It is the responsibility of the Office of Surface Mining and state authorities to protect drinking water and wildlife habitat from the catastrophic effects of mountaintop removal mining. This proposal, though it does encourage increased safety monitoring and stream restoration, just doesn’t do the job,” said Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney at the group Defenders of Wildlife, in the statement. “What we need are strong and well-defined mining rules that ensure the health of our nation’s lands and waters.”

Jewell said on the call that the rules seek to take into account local conditions when establishing limits on mining, rather than setting a single national standard. The buffer “may be less in some places, may be more in others depending on hydrology and geology,” said Jewell.

“At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule,” said Thom Kay, a legislative associate with the group Appalachian Voices. “But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.”

Meanwhile, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) deemed it a “job-crushing, anti-coal rule” and said he would work to advance legislation that would “halt this assault on affordable electricity and coal jobs across the country.”

The department’s economic forecasts predict the rules will likely result in the loss of 460 coal jobs, Jewell said, but will create 250 jobs in restoration efforts.

The rules will be open for public comment for 60 days. The department said it anticipates finalizing the rules next year.

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