In July 2015, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) released its long-awaited draft of a new Stream Protection Rule restricting surface coal mining activities in and around waterways.
Securing the strongest rule possible is a cornerstone of Appalachian Voices’ campaign to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. If done right, the final rule could safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of this mining practice.
While this draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of the previous and wholly ineffective rule, it still allows coal companies to dump their mining waste in streams, and that is unacceptable.
The agency held several public hearings in Central Appalachia, including in Big Stone Gap, Va., Charleston, W.Va., and Lexington, Ky., where dozens of citizens voiced support for a stronger final rule.
OSMRE is charged with protecting the public and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining. In 1983, the agency created the Stream Buffer Zone Rule to prevent mining activities within 100 feet of a stream. The rule was particularly restrictive for surface mining in Appalachia, where the mountains are laced with hundreds of streams that are the source of drinking water supplies for local communities, and for many in the mid-Atlantic states.
But the rule was never fully enforced, as state regulators commonly granted exceptions on mining permits allowing coal companies to both mine and dump waste within the 100-foot buffer. Over the years, more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been buried, and many more poisoned by toxins such as arsenic and selenium, which kill aquatic life and threaten human health.
In 2010, after legal action by conservation groups overturned a Bush-era attempt to weaken the rule, the Obama administration undertook a redrafting of the rule, and released the draft in July, 2015.
>> See this quick timeline (reprinted with permission from Bloomberg/BNA)
A few highlights
Appalachian Voices, our partners in the Alliance for Appalachia and many others around the country are calling on OSMRE to strengthen the rule in the following ways. Here are some of the key points.
- Clarify that water quality standards are enforceable under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and that citizen enforcement is allowable. In this way, those who are most impacted by surface mining can engage in meaningful legal action to ensure that protections are met, and when they are not, that mining companies are held accountable.
- Require pollution monitoring at valley fills, mining outfalls and other locations directly connected to mining operations.
- Ensure that existing streams are properly restored and prohibit mining companies from continuing to use the entirely ineffective process of building new “streams” instead.
- In regards to how “damages” to ground and surface water is defined, OSMRE should replace the proposed prohibition of impacts that “preclude” designated uses with a prohibition of impacts that “partially or completely eliminate or significantly degrade” existing or designated uses of a waterway.
- Strengthen the bonding requirements to ensure there are adequate funds to properly reclaim mines and waterways.