The US Department of the Interior has just issued proposed rules to protect water in coal mining areas, which would accomplish in one fell swoop what the Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to do for years. The new rules will effectively end the common practice of filling in valleys and streams with debris, in particular from mountaintop removal coal mining operations that involve literally blowing off the tops off mountains.
Did we just say blowing the tops off mountains? Yes, we did.
How Many Mountains?
Mountaintop removal coal mining (aka MTR or mountaintop coal mining) has been a common practice in the Appalachian states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee since the 197os. A 2009 study commissioned by the organization Appalachian Voices toted up the numbers:
Since the 1970s, the coal industry has blasted apart more than 500 of the oldest, most biologically rich mountains in America, and destroyed more than 2,000 miles of headwater streams.
Since 2009, Appalachian Voices has also used Google Earth to compile a before-and-after archive of additional MTR sites.
Aside from the permanent change to the landscape, mountaintop removal coal mining has been linked to economic malaise and public health issues in nearby communities, including lung issues and birth defects.
As a highly mechanized process, mountaintop removal also factors heavily into the loss of coal jobs in Appalachia.
According to some studies, coal employment in Appalachia topped out at 130,000 in the 1940s and fell steadily to around 22,000 in 2011. As of last year, it was down to about 14,000.
Plugging The Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Hole, One Way Or Another
Coincidentally, the year that Appalachian Voices released the findings of its MTR study was the same year that President Obama first took office, and since 2009 his Administration has been trying to update federal regulations to catch up with the change in coal industry practices.
The Administration didn’t let the grass grow under its feet. By October 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency suspended the permit process for the notorious Spruce Mine No. 1 MTR project, citing water quality impacts. That sparked a years-long legal battle ending up in EPA’s favor last year.
However, the piecemeal approach is not the most efficient way to regulate a common industry practice, and in 2009 the Interior Department also began taking steps to tighten up overall protections for streams and groundwater.
Yet Another Gift That Keeps On Giving
Everyone knows that the previous federal administration left behind several issues that are still unwinding, namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, and a change in federal water safety rules that opened the door to widespread oil and gas fracking.
Mountaintop removal coal mining is another such issue. Just before then-President Bush left office, his Administration created a new loophole in coal mining rules relating to stream buffer zones, which favored MTR.
That new rule was one of the Interior Department’s very first targets when President Obama took office. In April 2009, Interior formally challenged the new coal mining rules and eventually won that fight.
On the other hand, the legal battle reverted coal mining rules back to their 1983 status under the Reagan Administration. Those rules created federal standards but left the permitting process up to individual states.
In effect, there has been no change in federal rules for coal mining, even though coal mining practices have changed radically through the advent of widespread MTR in Appalachia.
Onwards & Upwards For Coal Mining Rules
That brings us to the new proposed Interior Department coal mining rules.
Here’s a snippet from Interior’s introduction:
The proposed rule would better protect streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations and provide mine operators with a regulatory framework to avoid water pollution and the long-term costs associated with water treatment.
Specifically, the proposed rule would require before-and-after data collection in adjacent areas as well as within the borders of the coal mining operation, and it would clearly define impacts beyond the borders of coal mining operations.
The proposed rule also covers water quality monitoring while the coal mining operation is active, and stream restoration requirements.
All of that is going to provoke some howling on the part of the coal industry, especially when it comes to this proposed new requirement:
The rule would also ensure protection or restoration of perennial and intermittent streams and related resources, ensure that mine operators and regulatory authorities make use of the most current science and technology, and ensure that land disturbed by mining operations is restored to a condition capable of supporting the uses that it was capable of supporting prior to mining. This rule revision updates and codifies the requirements and dispute resolution procedures involved when the proposed permit or adjacent areas contain federally listed threatened or endangered species and designated critical habitat.
This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is absolutely crippling West Virginia families and businesses. This proposed rule would have a devastating impact on our families, jobs and economy, and it fails to strike an appropriate balance between the economy and the environment. I urge my colleagues to take immediate action on the STREAM Act to rein in this harmful rule.
The STREAM Act is proposed federal legislation that would “not unnecessarily increase regulations or eliminate thousands of jobs,” as described by Senator Manchin.
Image (screenshot, health impact map) via I Love Mountains.