Posts Tagged ‘Office of Surface Mining’

Congress Blocks Stream Protection Rule

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

On Feb. 1, the U.S. House of Representatives invoked a seldom-used procedure to strike down the Stream Protection Rule. The Senate followed suit the next day.

The rule, enacted by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the final days of the Obama administration, offered modest steps toward protecting streams from surface mining.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement worked on the rule since 2009. It required increased water monitoring and forest reclamation, among other provisions to update the 1983 stream buffer zone rule.

“I have watched the creek that flows past my grandmother’s home in Floyd County, Ky., become ruined by the strip mining above it. I used to catch crawdads in that creek, but now it smells and looks noxious,” said David Wasilko, of Kingston, Tenn., in comments submitted to the federal office that wrote the rule. “There is no life in the water and the terrible odor permeates the entire hollow. Citizens of the coalfields deserve the best possible Stream Protection Rule that the OSM can provide.”

The 1996 Congressional Review Act, the tool used against the Stream Protection Rule, allows Congress to block federal regulations within 60 congressional days of their passage and makes it difficult to write “substantially similar” rules in the future. It had only been successfully used by Congress once in the past.

“We have failed to protect the families in these communities, and passage of this bill will inflict another blow to their health and wellbeing. They deserve far better,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) told fellow members of the House.

As of press time in early February, members of Congress have challenged at least a dozen other rules using this law. Also at risk is the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule requiring oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands to decrease the amount of natural gas that is vented each year into the atmosphere.

On Feb. 1, the House also struck down a regulation passed by the Obama administration that required oil, gas and mining companies to report payments from foreign governments, according to the Washington Post.

Read more about the ongoing fight for clean water on our Front Porch Blog.

Appalachian Voices joins coalition to legally defend stream protections, community health

Thursday, January 19th, 2017 - posted by cat

Contact: Thom Kay, Senior Legislative Representative, 864-580-1843, thom.kay [at]
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat [at]

Washington DC – A coalition of local and national community and conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, yesterday filed a motion to participate in two lawsuits that seek to undermine the Stream Protection Rule. The rule, an update to the standards intended to protect clean water and other natural resources threatened by surface coal mining operations across the nation, was issued December 19, 2016, by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, after almost a decade of work.

Almost immediately, the new rule was challenged in court by the state of North Dakota and Murray Energy Corporation. And yesterday, Ohio, West Virginia, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Texas, Utah and Wyoming filed their own legal challenge to the rule.

Most of these states are also appealing to Congress to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA), an arcane procedure that gives Congress the power to stop regulations that were developed by scientists and other experts and commented upon by the public and the affected industry. The Stream Protection Rule generated more than 150,000 comments during the lengthy public comment period that included 15 public meetings across the country.

Although conservation groups had advocated for stronger protections, the long-awaited rule provides local communities with information they need about water pollution caused by nearby coal mining operations, and includes several important protections for clean water and the health of communities surrounding coal mining operations.

In filing this motion, Appalachian Voices joins Earthjustice, which represents national conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club and community and conservation groups in Alaska, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and other states affected by surface mining.

Communities adversely affected by coal mining have been waiting for too long for stronger protections, while destructive coal mining has continued without adequate safeguards. Mountaintop removal mining, one of the most devastating forms of coal mining, has been responsible for destroying an estimated 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia. Dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked mountaintop removal mining to poor health outcomes such as elevated birth defects and deaths from cancer. In the semi-arid West, coal extraction threatens scarce water resources that farmers and ranchers depend on; in Alaska, vital salmon streams are often located in close proximity to coal deposits.

The Stream Protection Rule will now provide these communities with some of the tools they need to hold bad actors accountable for the damage they cause and hold the mining industry accountable for harming wildlife and habitat. It is vital that these commonsense, modest protections are kept in place to aid communities from Appalachia to Alaska.

Statement from Appalachian Voices’ Thom Kay:

“This final rule replaces a 33-year-old regulation with a thoroughly vetted and scientifically based rule that attempts to balance the needs of the industry and local impacts. State regulators, industry representatives, and community members were given ample opportunity to convey their perspectives about what the rule should look like.

“The attacks on this rule are shortsighted and an insult to the tens of thousands of citizens who spoke up for strong stream protections.”

Statement from Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse:

“All Americans, from Alaska to Appalachia, deserve common sense protections for clean water, and that’s why we just can’t send our nation back in time and let the coal industry do whatever it likes to local communities’ water and natural areas.”

In addition to Appalachian Voices, Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club, Cook Inletkeeper, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Waterkeeper Alliance, Coal River Mountain Watch, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Western Organization of Resource Councils and Kentuckians for The Commonwealth.

Appalachian Voices testifies before Senate panel on coal-mining rule

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 - posted by cat

Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-773-0799,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson, Ph.D., is testifying tomorrow morning before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on the implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s draft Stream Protection Rule. (NOTE: We will add a link here for live-streaming video when it becomes available from the committee.)

The rule, expected to be finalized before the end of the Obama administration, is intended to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. It has become a flashpoint for the coal industry and its political allies who charge it will harm the industry, but in his testimony, Wasson disputes that charge and highlights the clear need for a strong rule.

Drawing on a wealth of scientific data, and directly citing comments made by citizens in Central Appalachia who wrote to the agency or spoke at one of the public hearings on the rule in September 2015, Wasson highlights five areas of particular concern arising from an under-regulated and at times unlawful coal industry: threats to human health, damage to streams and wildlife, and the need for proper bonding requirements, citizen enforcement, and economic diversification throughout the region.

The Stream Protection Rule would update a 1983 rule, which has failed to protect the health of Central Appalachian streams, wildlife and communities, according to Wasson. More than 2,000 miles of streams have been obliterated, and virtually all stream “restoration” projects have failed to produce healthy aquatic habitat. Life expectancy in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining declined between 1997 and 2007, even as it rose in the U.S. as a whole. Central Appalachian counties where mountaintop removal occurs have among the highest poverty rates in the country.

In his testimony, Wasson debunks a recent study by the National Mining Association predicting the Stream Protection Rule would lead to job losses. The study is predicated on an unreliable methodology and unrealistic projections for coal production, and it fails to assess benefits resulting from the rule, such as safety and health improvements in communities.

Wasson concludes that while the draft Stream Protection Rule is far from perfect, it does represent an “honest effort to improve upon three decades of poor regulation that has allowed mountaintop removal coal mining to endanger Appalachian communities and devastate wildlife and aquatic ecosystems.”

>> Key excerpts from Wasson’s testimony, available here in its entirety, including direct quotes from Central Appalachian citizens.

Appalachian Voices believes the proposed rule represents, at best, two steps forward and one step back. But any discussion of the “Implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining’s proposed Stream Protection Rule” needs to start with one basic fact: the permitting and enforcement regime that has been in effect since 1983 is not working, and indeed has never worked to protect the health of streams, communities and wildlife in Central Appalachia.

What is so notable about the science linking mountaintop removal to elevated death rates and poor health outcomes is not the strength of any individual study, but rather the enormous quantity of data from independent sources that all point toward dramatic increases in rates of disease and decreases in life expectancy and physical well-being. … Life expectancy for both men and women actually declined between 1997 and 2007 in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining, even as life expectancy in the U.S. as a whole increased by more than a year. In 2007, life expectancy in the five Appalachian counties with the most strip mining was comparable to that in developing countries like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Our concern is that this rule is overly reliant on mitigation measures like stream replacement that have been shown to almost always fail to restore stream function. For instance, researchers at the University of Maryland published a peer-reviewed study in 2014 that synthesized information from 434 stream mitigation projects from 117 permits for surface mining in Appalachia. The study evaluated the success of both stream restoration and stream creation projects and concluded that “the data show that mitigation efforts being implemented in southern Appalachia for coal mining are not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded streams ecosystems and their functions.” Astoundingly, the study found that, “97% of the projects reported suboptimal or marginal habitat even after 5 years of monitoring.”

The Stream Protection Rule could help to address agency inaction, and improve the relationship between Central Appalachian residents and the agencies that are supposed to be serving those communities, but several additional improvements to the SPR are necessary. The SPR should clarify that coal mining operations must comply with water quality standards and that these standards are directly enforceable under SMCRA. Furthermore, the SPR should clarify that citizens can enforce this requirement. Citizen enforcement of the CWA has been crucial to protecting public water from coal mining pollution in Central Appalachia. That ability should be strengthened.

As many local citizens who testified in support of the SPR have said, protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region is an integral part of making a successful economic transition. … Protecting those natural assets begins with reining in (and ideally eliminating altogether) mountaintop removal coal mining, which is associated just as strongly with poor socioeconomic conditions in communities near where mines operate as it is with reduced life expectancy and poor health.


Revisions Expected for Surface Mine Blasting Rules

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Kimber

By Lorelei Goff

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement announced in December that it will revise current rules to prevent toxic gas emissions from surface coal mine blasting operations.

The announcement followed a petition from the environmental group Wild Earth Guardians last April to prohibit the production of visible nitrogen oxide emissions during blasting.

Nitrogen oxide — a greenhouse gas linked to respiratory conditions, acid rain and air pollution — is visible as an orange cloud when there is incomplete combustion during blasting at a surface mine. The current rules governing surface coal mine blasting do not specifically address harmful gas releases, allowing a loophole that some mining companies have used to disregard safe practices.

The agency’s public affairs specialist, Christopher Holmes, says the revisions will clarify the intent of the current rules.

“[The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977] says operators may not cause an offsite impact or carry out any activity that threatens human health, safety and welfare, and must prevent damage to property as well,” says Holmes. “So, toxic gases would fall under that.”

Holmes said no deadline has been set for the revisions.

Regulators Restore 1983 Stream Protection Rule

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - posted by molly

To comply with a federal court ruling, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement restored an earlier version of a rule meant to protect water quality and stream channels from coal mining waste.

Last February, a court threw out amendments added to the rule in 2008 after determining that the agency failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act, when writing the regulation. Because the rule is intended to avert the worst impacts of mountaintop removal, the change will have the greatest effect on coal companies operating in Appalachia.

Impoundment Safety Called Into Question | Stream Buffer Zone Delay

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 - posted by interns

Questions and criticism followed a Nov. 30 accident at a CONSOL Energy-operated coal slurry impoundment in West Virginia that left one worker dead. A few days after the incident, The Charleston Gazette reported that records “outlined company concerns that construction to enlarge the dump had not been moving fast enough to keep up with slurry waste generated by the preparation plant at CONSOL’s nearby Robinson Run Mine.”

On Jan. 10, the Office of Surface Mining reported that regulators had not done enough to prevent impoundment breakthroughs into abandoned underground mines. In response, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced new regulations for impoundment construction.

OSM plans to conduct similar studies in six other states including Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Interior Department Under Fire for Stream Buffer Zone Delay

A coalition of environmental groups reopened litigation against the U.S. Department of Interior for its inaction on a rule to protect streams from mountaintop removal mining that was removed in the final weeks of the Bush administration.

While the Interior Department and the Obama administration agreed the removal of the “stream buffer zone rule” was unlawful, a new rule has not been issued. Under the stream buffer zone rule, surface mining was prohibited within 100 feet of streams.

Environmental groups say the Bush repeal allowed coal companies to place valley fills and waste impoundments, byproducts of surface mining, directly into streams.

Subcommittee Hearing A “Dog and Pony Show” With Your Ringmaster, Rep. Bill Johnson

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 - posted by brian

Welcome to the Subcommittee Circus

I’ll admit, this morning’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing had my head spinning. Similar to the committee’s previous hearings on the stream buffer zone rule, statements made by the Republican majority committee members could cause concerns as to who exactly they’re representing.

The hearing seemed staged to give committee members yet another opportunity to barrage Director of the Office of Surface Mining Joseph Pizarchik with criticism over the Obama administration’s proposed budget for OSM, which includes proposed changes to the Abandoned Mine Lands amendments of 2006, and the highly contested handling of a rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule, a controversial topic dating back several years. On a second panel, Appalachian Voices’ Director of Programs Dr. Matt Wasson gave testimony in support of the Administration’s rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule, using data on job creation to turn some committee members’ claims of regulations as job-killers on their head. (more…)

AV Testifies in Congress

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Today, Appalachian Voices’ Director of Programs, Dr. Matt Wasson, is testifying before the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

The hearing begins at 10 a.m. EST, and you can view the hearing homepage and watch the LIVE video feed here.

The majority of this committee has been pushing a coal-industry agenda this session, and we don’t expect this hearing to be much different. The topic is “Effect of the President’s FY 2013 Budget and Legislative Proposals for the Office of Surface Mining on Private Sector Job Creation, Domestic Energy Production, State Programs and Deficit Reduction,” and discussion will center around the Stream Protection Rule.

Matt Wasson will submit testimony as to why a strong Stream Protection Rule is necessary, and will counter industry disinformation about its effect on jobs and domestic energy protection. Rather, he will show data supporting the fact that previous oversight by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection and the Office of Surface Mining have had no negative impact on jobs or domestic energy prices.

His testimony argues that pro-industry predictions of the impact of the Stream Protection Rule are based on faulty assumptions and non-existent data.

Stay tuned to our twitter feed (visible on our homepage) for more!

BLM/OSM Merger Postponed | Newsbites

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 - posted by molly

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a postponement of a merger between the Bureau of Land Management and the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement to Feb. 15, 2012.

In late October, Salazar announced the proposal and received immediate and staunch criticism. Some argued that the two agencies have little overlap and expressed doubts over whether the merger would be effective. Others questioned if Salazar’s proposal is legal, since both the BLM and OSMRE were created by acts of Congress.

At a hearing held by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, panelists gave testimony questioning the effects of the merger. West Virginia University College of Law Professor Patrick McGinley noted the order was made with no prior notice or consultation of Congress, coalfield citizens or the coal industry and argued that mingling OSMRE employees with those of agencies that promote development or use of coal is explicitly prohibited by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The BLM is the federal agency tasked with administration of the United States’ public lands, while the OSMRE, an unrelated branch of the Department of the Interior, is entrusted with implementation and enforcement of 1977’s SMCRA legislation.

Mine Agency Releases Inspection Results, Audited for Poor Fine Collection

In the wake of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Raleigh County, W.Va., the Mine Health and Safety Administration announced a plan to increase their presence in monitoring mine sites for safety hazards in Appalachia. The results of the October impact inspections were announced Nov. 22.

The eight inspected coal mines were issued 145 citations and 18 orders. A mine in Pike County, Ky., operated by Viper Coal LLC., received eight citations for mining in excess of the 20-foot maximum cut depth and exposing miners to potentially fatal roof falls.

Impact inspections target mines that have poor compliance history and require “increased agency attention and enforcement.” Since they began, 6,383 citations, 614 orders and 22 safeguards have re- sulted from 383 inspections.

Nearly a week after the inspection results were announced, the Department of Labor released an audit documenting MSHA’s failure to effectively enforce and collect fines for violations under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

MSHA is scheduled to release its official report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on Dec. 6.

The full audit report concerning MSHA’s fine collection can be found on the Office of the Inspector General‘s web- site:

Delays and Setbacks for EPA Clean Air Rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced another delay of new standards limiting the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. The delay is the latest setback for proposed clean air rules governing everything from smog to mercury pollution.

As the EPA plans safer air pollution rules, some in Congress have criticized the EPA’s proposed regulations, alleging they would kill jobs and hamper economic recovery. The delay comes despite new data showing the largest increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions (for the year 2010) since the start of the industrial revolution – 564 million tons more than 2009 – a six percent increase.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson reports that the finalized plan for power plants will roll out early next year. The new deadline to finalize rules concerning oil refinery emissions is now mid- November, 2012.

Surface Mines as Military Training Facilities

Military personnel bound for Afghanistan will be making a stop in West Virginia to learn to operate Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The trainings will take place on reclaimed surface mine land adjacent to the West Virginia National Guard training complex. The terrain was chosen for its similarities to eastern Afghanistan.

Baard Energy Drops Plans for Coal-to-Liquids Plant

Due to sustained and outspoken citizen opposition and financial setbacks, Baard Energy has cancelled a proposed $5.5 billion coal-to-liquids plant in Columbiana County, Ohio. The coal-to-liquids facility would have used 9.3 million tons of coal a year, including Ohio high-sulfur coal.

West Virginia Gov. Tomblin Sworn in, Swears to fight EPA

On Nov. 13, the 35th Governor of West Virginia, Earl Ray Tomblin, was sworn into office at the state capitol in Charleston. Tomblin has continuously denounced EPA regulations. In September, as acting Governor, Tomblin gave testimony at a Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resource hearing where he decried the EPA’s “anti-coal” agenda and claimed West Virginian’s owe their financial health partially to coal.

Coal Industry Wants Homeland Security Exemption

The Department of Homeland Security recently accepted public comment on a 2008 rule proposing the regulation of the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate. Traditionally a farm fertilizer, the compound can be used to create bombs via widely available instructions. The National Mining Association has requested an exemption for the purchase of ammonium nitrate used solely for the production of explosives. A letter from Tawny A. Bridgeford, the association’s deputy general counsel, claims the mining industry’s ammonium nitrate purchases are adequately regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and that “[The] Department of Homesland Security should have a more accurate accounting for the costs of its regulatory program before finalizing its proposed rule.”

Investor Backs Away from Carbon-Capture Program

Ameren, a Midwest power company and a primary investor in an effort to implement commercial scale carbon capture and sequestration, backed out of the venture over financial concerns. Originally created in 2003, the venture FutureGen 2.0, received $1 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the conversion of one power plant.

Appalachian Coal Mining Jobs Reach 14-year High

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 - posted by molly

Increase Comes Despite Arguments that Regulations Kill Jobs

Some congressional representatives claim that federal oversight of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia threatens domestic coal production and the regions coal mining jobs, but new government data indicates the opposite is true.

Data released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration show that the number of jobs at Appalachian coal mines in the first three quarters of 2011 is at its highest level since 1997. In contrast to previous predictions by coal industry supporters, the number of miners in Appalachia has increased by six percent since the Obama Administration announced plans to strengthen the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s scrutiny of mountaintop removal permits in June of 2009.

Since the April 2010 issuance of an interim guidance on surface mine permitting in Appalachia by the EPA, the number of Appalachian miners has grown by 10 percent. Based on this correlation, environmental groups contend that strengthened enforcement of mine safety and environmental rules is creating jobs in Appalachia.

Congress has held numerous hearings this year suggesting that government regulation of surface mining leads to fewer mining jobs. A Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing in November involved legislation introduced by Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH) called the “Coal Miner Employment and Domestic Energy Infrastructure Protection Act.” Johnson’s bill would stop the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from rewriting the federal stream buffer zone rule. The bill would also greatly restrict the surface mining agency’s ability to regulate coal mines by prohibiting it from tak- ing any actions that would reduce coal mine employment, reduce the amount of coal available for mining, consumption, or export, or designate an area as unsuitable for surface mining techniques such as mountaintop removal.

Some members of Congress have claimed that deregulation of coal mining is necessary to increase domestic coal production. But, according to the Federal Reserve data released in November, the capacity of active and permitted coal mines is the highest it has been in 25 years. At the same time, coal mine capacity is being utilized at its lowest rate in 25 years.