Stream Rule to Come: Making Water Safer and Coal Mining More Expensive

by | May 19, 2016

One coal chief executive says the impending stream protection rule would be the most expensive coal regulation ever enacted. But the Obama administration says that it is long overdue and necessary to protect water quality. A final rule is due out this summer.

It’s a classic battle of industry versus government — an industry that is already getting beaten to the ground. Industry not only argues that the issues here are those for the states but it also says that thousands of jobs would be lost if the rule takes effect. But Uncle refutes that, saying that the rule would better protect streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations. It would also provide mine operators with a regulatory framework to avoid water pollution and the long-term costs associated with water treatment.

In 1977, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation published initial rules that said land within 100 feet of streams could not be disturbed by surface coal mining unless developers received “special” permission to do so. If those operations could be conducted in an environmentally satisfying way, then such permissions would be granted.

The agency’s proposed stream protections would extend that beyond the 100-foot buffer zone — with the language emphasizing that both the quality and quantity of water could be adversely affected by any mining.

“A technical analysis of the impact of this rule on actual mines shows that up to 78,000 coal mining jobs could be lost – added to the tens of thousands already lost just in the past three years,” says Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Association.

“When coal-supported jobs in manufacturing, power plants and freight rail are included, the stream protection rule’s toll on employment rises to between 113,000 and 280,000, as one half or more of total U.S. coal reserves are potentially placed off limits to mining,” he adds. “Still, (the federal agency) persists in a rulemaking despite potentially devastating consequences for jobs throughout the energy supply chain as well as for the states that must do without them and the revenue they generate.”

Those views are echoed by Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, who calls the stream protection rule the most far-reaching effort yet by the federal government to curb coal production.

However, Director Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Joseph Pizarchik said at the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment said that the states need to gather the baseline data. Then, they will have to properly monitor the streams to ensure they are restored to the conditions that existed prior to when the mining began.

“If the critters can live live in the stream before and after, then we have been successful,” said Director Pizarchik. “But if they get wiped out, then know there was a failure.”

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