Federal OSMRE Proposes Revisions To Strengthen Stream
Protections From Coal Mines
The State Journal
16 July 2015
By Sarah Tincher, Energy Reporter
The U.S. Department of the Interior has unveiled a long-awaited
rewrite of a decades-old rule to protect streams from the being
damaged by coal mining.
The proposal aims to update the original 1983 rule, which required
a 100-foot “buffer zone” adjacent to streams. In 2008, Office of
Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) finalized the
Stream Buffer Zone Rule to clarify OSMRE’s interpretation of the
original rule, explicitly allowing excess soil to be placed in
streams, though it also added new requirements designed to reduce
the adverse environmental impacts of doing so.
But the revision was met with opposition from 10 environmental
groups in two lawsuits led by Coal River Mountain Watch and the
National Parks Conservation Association. And in February 2014, the
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the 2008
Stream Buffer Zone Rule.
Now, after years of drafting the rule, the July 16 proposal would
revise OSMRE regulations to clearly define “material damage
to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area,” and require
that each permit specify the point at which adverse impacts from
mining would cause material damage to the hydrologic balance
outside the permit data.
The proposal, which will be available for public comment for 60
days, would require coal companies to test and monitor conditions
of streams they might impact before, during and after mining. It
also strengthens requirements for mine operators to collect
pre-mining data about the site of a proposed mining operation to
establish an adequate baseline for evaluation.
The rule would also require coal companies to restore streams and
return mined areas to a condition capable of supporting the land
uses available before mining activities.
But the provisions are expected to come with a price — especially
In its 1,267-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the agency
projected annual compliance costs for the preferred scenario to
reach $52 million nationwide, with Appalachia seeing the
highest costs at $24 million. The Illinois Basin comes in second,
with a projected $14 million price tag on the rule.
Appalachia could also see annual coal production drop by 900,000
tons annually under the preferred scenario.
The 1,238-page rule was quickly met with opposition from several
coal industry groups and their Congressional supporters, including
several West Virginia lawmakers.
“This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is
absolutely crippling West Virginia families and
businesses,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “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.”
And the National Mining Association was one of the first
organizations to condemn the proposal.
“This is a rule in search of a problem,” NMA President and CEO Hal
Quinn said in a statement. “It has nothing to do with new science
and everything to do with an old and troubling agenda for
separating more coal miners from their jobs.”
Conversely, several environmental groups urged the Obama
Administration to adopt stronger protections in the final rule.
“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for
robust federal action to protect their streams and communities
from the damages of surface coal mining,” said Thom Kay, a
legislative associate for Appalachian Voices. “At first glance,
the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions
of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule
as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining
waste in our streams.
“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s
final rule presents the strongest possible protections."
But many West Virginia lawmakers and policymakers expressed a lack
of support for the proposal before it was even released.
In May, West Virginia lawmakers, including Manchin, Sen. Shelley
Moore Capito, R-W.VA., and Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., worked to
introduce the STREAM Act, which aimed to require OSM to use
existing funds to conduct a study of industry impact. It would
then prevent implementation of a new rule for one year after
completion of that study to allow for congressional, industry and
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also
backed out of its agreement with OSMRE to cooperate in drafting
the federal Stream Protection Rule, citing a ““lack of
communication and engagement” with West Virginia. Several other
agencies also terminated their role as cooperators in drafting the
analysis, including the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, the
New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, the Kentucky Department
for Natural Resource, the Railroad Commission of Texas and the
Alabama Surface Mining Commission.
The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, however,
remained on board with OSMRE in drafting the analysis.