New Rule Aims to Stop Coal Mining from Poisoning Water

If you rented out your house to friends and they trashed it, damaging walls and breaking the plumbing system, you’d be pretty upset, right? And you’d be justified in saying it was your ‘friend’s’ responsibility to pay for clean up and repairs.

Well, that’s essentially what the Interior Department said when it released its Stream Protection Rule earlier this week. The rule, seven years in the making, aims to ensure that coal companies “avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources, increase flood risk and threaten forests.”

The final rule updates 33-year old regulations and “establishes clear requirements for responsible surface coal mining that will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades, preserving community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

As our friends at the Citizens Coal Council noted, right now there are few protections that directly address water pollution and other damages to water supplies caused by coal mining. The new rule closes a major loophole that has been exploited by the coal industry for decades. It does so by providing a concrete definition for "material damage to the hydrologic balance", a concept that had been previously left up to interpretation, typically in favor of the coal industry.

The rule also requires the testing and monitoring of the condition of streams that “might be affected by mining”—before, during and after their operations—to provide baseline data that “ensures operators can detect and correct problems that could arise, and restore mined areas to their previous condition.”

Through these standards, Interior says, the rule “promotes operational accountability to achieve the environmental restoration required when mining operations were permitted.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have long been opposed to anything that would make them responsible for cleaning up their messes, or to stop them from making a mess in the first place.

But this isn’t about burdensome regulations, it’s about vital protections for our health, clean water and our natural systems. Irresponsible coal mining, particularly in Appalachia, has poisoned water sources, killed off fish and other wildlife, damaged landscapes and decreased property values.

The main culprit here is so called Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR), a practice in which companies literally blow up the tops of mountains and then dump the “overburden” into streams and valleys below.

Large swaths of coal country in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania have been scarred by MTR practices.  Mountaintop removal mining has already buried more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia, while thousands more miles have been poisoned by toxic mine waste.

While impacts are perhaps the most severe in Appalachia, they’re also serious out West, where strip mining has literally removed streams, and destroyed or poisoned aquifers people rely on for drinking water and agriculture.

A bit more on the rule:

It “expands the baseline data requirements for permit applications for proposed coal mining operations to ensure that the permittee and the regulatory authority have a complete picture of premining conditions to which the impacts of mining can be compared. Monitoring during mining and reclamation will include a comprehensive suite of parameters for both surface water and groundwater to ensure that the impacts of mining are identified in a manner that will enable timely initiation of corrective measures.”

“The stream protection rule requires the restoration of the physical form, hydrologic function, and ecological function of the segment of a perennial or intermittent stream that a permittee mines through. Additionally, it requires that the postmining surface configuration of the reclaimed minesite include a drainage pattern, including ephemeral streams, similar to the premining drainage pattern, with exceptions for stability, topographical changes, fish and wildlife habitat, etc.”

It’s not perfect, we’d like it to be a lot stronger: measuring and monitoring are important and needed improvements, but they don’t go far enough in stopping mining practices that poison streams and drinking water, devastate ancient landscapes and threaten public health. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement recognized as much in their press materials where they note the new rule will “prevent or minimize impacts to surface water and groundwater from coal mining.”

The rule, however, does represents much hard work and due diligence—contrary to what coal companies and their polluting allies would have you believe. In fact, Interior officials reviewed over 150,000 comments on the rule and held 15 stakeholder meetings around the country in efforts to hear concerns from all sides.

“Regulations need to keep pace with modern mining practices,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said earlier this week, “so we worked closely with many stakeholders to craft a plan that protects water quality, supports economic opportunities, safeguards our environment and makes coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future.”

In the end it comes down to trust. Big coal has shown over and over again that it can’t be trusted to protect our clean water, our health, and the legacy we leave to our children. Their bottom line is money. The bottom line with this rule, however imperfect it may be, is an important step toward protecting our health, our water and our future.

About the Authors

Theo Spencer

Senior Advocate

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