Posts Tagged ‘Stream Protection Rule’

Appalachia is blessed with abundant water — we should protect it

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices


Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends urged lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies and state and federal agencies accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Of the many actions taken by the Trump administration in recent days, one that is skating by with little notice is an attempt to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

This country has a very real problem with water. In Flint, Mich., many still rely on bottled water as toxic lead pipes have contaminated their municipal water. One of the resources we are most blessed with here in Appalachia is fresh drinking water of the highest quality. We should be taking every possible measure that we can to protect it.

Enacted last year, the Stream Protection Rule is a modest, common sense safeguard to ensure the quality of our streams that are impacted by mountaintop removal mining operations. In Southwest Virginia and across Appalachia, it is common practice for mining companies to bury streams under tons of mining waste.

Streams are also frequently contaminated by heavy metals, and other pollutants discharged from surface mines. The Stream Protection Rule compels mining companies to monitor the water quality of streams they are operating near — waters that many others use for recreation or draw drinking water from — and to address any issues caused by mining.

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to attack many of the rules and laws that seek to protect the air and water of the United States. Now members of the majority party wish to kill this rule with little debate, using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act. We cannot allow that to happen.

As an Appalachian raised in Bristol, with family roots across Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, I urge Senators Warner and Kaine to defend the Stream Protection Rule against attacks. Clean water is an incredibly precious and vital resource — one that so many do not enjoy. We must take every effort to protect our water. We must reject any effort to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

Mackay Pierce

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.

Environmental Votetracker — Feb/March 2017

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by molly
Appalachian House and Senate votes on the Stream Protection Rule

Click to enlarge

Fighting for clean water after the Stream Protection Rule

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 - posted by Erin
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.

UPDATE: On Feb. 16, President Donald Trump signed a bill to reverse the Stream Protection Rule. Read our press release here.

Citizens across the nation are talking about mountaintop removal right now, following the House and Senate votes last week to repeal the Stream Protection Rule.

The Senate voted 54-45 on Friday to repeal the rule through a rarely-used law called the Congressional Review Act. Contrary to some claims that the Stream Protection Rule was a last-minute Obama dig at the coal industry, the rule had actually been under development by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for most of Obama’s presidency.

It would have updated a 34-year-old version of the regulations, known as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Both rules spell out implementation details of the 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act, which remains in effect even without the Stream Protection Rule.

Headlines widely shared over social media alerted the nation to the end of a rule that would have “stopped” coal companies from dumping waste in streams. In the comments, people braced themselves for the coming impacts. But what many do not realize is that coal companies have been dumping their waste into streams in Central Appalachia for decades, and continue to do so now. They did it under President Bush. They did it under President Obama. The practice is called “valley filling” and is a byproduct of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. The new rule would have limited this practice, but it would not have ended it.

Threats to public water from corporate and political interests are nothing new in Central Appalachia, nor is the problem unique to this area. The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., coal ash contamination across North Carolina, lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock Reservation have shown us that.

Despite intense polarization in the United States, polling shows that a majority of Americans are concerned about threats to clean drinking water. Communities that already have contaminated water are imploring their leaders to do something about it.

“We can’t live without clean water,” said Paula Swearigen of Sophia, W.Va. “This administration has totally dismissed the health and safety of people in places like Flint and Appalachia. What does it say about America if we don’t value the lives of innocent people? We have to hold our leaders accountable. Our children have to contend with the decisions they make.”

Meanwhile, politicians in Appalachia and elsewhere ignore this public demand and continue to act in favor of corporate interests.

Mountaintop removal production in Central Appalachia has declined by about 70 percent since its peak in 2008. Coal is being outcompeted by natural gas and renewables, and the easily accessible coal in Central Appalachia is running out. Appalachian people know this. They know that now is the time to diversify the economy and protect critical resources like clean water. Despite the decline, mountaintop removal is still happening. New permits are still being issued and citizens living downstream are still suffering the consequences. The Stream Protection Rule was not going to end mountaintop removal, but it would have improved clean water protections.

The communities of Flint, of Standing Rock and of the Central Appalachian coalfields are glad for the attention they are receiving right now because it strengthens their fight. But what they really need is continued support for a long fight. Indigenous people, communities of color, Appalachian Americans, and poor and working class people across the country have always had to fight for basic rights like clean water. This fight will continue. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Donate to help us fight for Appalachian streams and communities.
  • Learn how your representative and senators voted on the Stream Protection Rule
  • Call your elected officials regularly to share your concerns
  • Support the RECLAIM Act
  • Vote in the midterm elections in 2018
  • Read reliable news sources fully and critically
  • Show your support to water causes across the country by joining direct actions, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, or making donations

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.

Congress takes aim at stream protections

Friday, January 13th, 2017 - posted by brian
Mountaintop removal coal mines like this one in W.Va. have polluted streams for years. Photo by Kent Mason.

Mountaintop removal coal mines like this one in W.Va. have polluted streams for years. Photo by Kent Mason.

Long before it was finalized, the Stream Protection Rule was in the crosshairs.

Opponents of environmental protections in Congress have criticized the rule-making process since it began back in 2009, holding regular hearings to condemn the Obama administration for its attempts to improve regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining — but often ignoring the ongoing impacts to Appalachian communities, public health and the environment.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released the final Stream Protection Rule in December with the knowledge that it would be a top target for the incoming Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. The president-elect has pledged to kill the rule, among other environmental policies enacted or initiated under the Obama administration. And Republicans in the House and Senate vowed to block it from ever taking effect; West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito described the rule’s release as an “exercise in futility.”

But the Stream Protection Rule itself, and the purpose it is intended to serve, remain critical to improving the health and wellbeing of Appalachian residents who suffer the long-term consequences of coal mining pollution. The scientific evidence linking mountaintop removal to poor health has been described as “strong and irrefutable” and a growing body of research is drawing the connection between the destructive mining method and significantly higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among individuals living in the region where it occurs.

>> Read comments from Appalachian citizens to the agency on the draft rule in late 2015. <<

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements for the protection of Appalachian communities and waterways threatened by coal mining pollution. It requires improved water monitoring and reclamation practices, but it falls short of preventing mining through streams or ending mountaintop removal. Implementing the rule would not adequately safeguard human or environmental health from the impacts of mountaintop removal, nor would undoing it reverse the Appalachian coal industry’s decades-long decline.

Rather than rescinding the rule through administrative avenues, which could take years, legislators plan to utilize the Congressional Review Act, a rarely invoked 1996 law that allows Congress to block federal rules within 60 legislative days of their publication in the Federal Register. The Stream Protection Rule is by no means the only regulation that Congress intends to attack using the Congressional Review Act — because of the legislative calendar, it’s estimated that any agency rule finalized since mid-June could be at risk — but Trump’s implausible promise to “save the coal industry” makes it a top candidate.

There are few impediments preventing Congress from erasing the rule by sending President Trump a “joint resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act, and preventing the Interior Department from ever issuing a “substantially similar” rule in the future. Perhaps only other items on Republicans’ agenda will force them to put off targeting the Stream Protection Rule. In the meantime, we hope members of Congress will realize that they’re gambling with Appalachia’s health and economic future, all for a risky bet on coal’s unlikely comeback.

Statement from Appalachian Voices’ Senior Legislative Representative Thom Kay (864) 580-1843

“Republicans are against the very idea of this rule, despite the fact that it 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. Using the Congressional Review Act to simply erase this rule and block critical protections from ever being updated is shortsighted and an insult to the tens of thousands of citizens who spoke up for strong stream protections.

“We’re disappointed that the final rule does not go nearly as far as it should to curtail mountaintop removal. Allowing coal companies to continue polluting waterways may benefit the industry in the short term, but not without causing lasting harm to Appalachia’s people, environment and economy. The Trump administration should focus on ways to diversify and strengthen Central Appalachia’s economy, rather than taking on a political fight against a moderate and reasonable rule.”

Statement from Chad Cordell with the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

“As a West Virginia native, I’ve been concerned about the impacts of mountaintop removal since first learning that the beautiful valleys and streams of my home state were being buried under hundreds of feet of rubble by coal companies. Though the state sets permit standards for mining, there are still major problems. I’ve seen this first hand though my work with a group that has monitored water quality at a mine near my home over the past 3 years. Our inspections have found repeated violations, widespread erosion, water contamination, and persistent acid mine drainage.

“We need strong science-based protections for the creeks, streams, and rivers that are the lifeblood of our state. And we need our representatives in government to have enough wisdom to know that weakening protections for our streams and rivers by attacking the Stream Protection Rule isn’t the way to build strong, healthy, resilient communities or a strong, stable economy.”

Courts Could Determine Obama’s Environmental Legacy

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

With just months remaining in the Obama presidency, the clock is ticking on major rulemakings by the administration aimed at safeguarding the environment and public health and combating climate change. As the next election nears, several regulations are either yet to be finalized or tied up in federal court.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court hit pause on the Clean Power Plan, slowing the momentum of efforts to regulate carbon pollution from power plants and sending a disruptive signal to the states, many of which put planning for the rule’s implementation on hold.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on the plan in September, meaning a decision will come after the election. And, if the seat on the Supreme Court left open by the late Antonin Scalia remains vacant, the D.C. Circuit’s ruling could be decisive.

But while the Clean Power Plan continues to be a flashpoint, the lesser known Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have had a larger impact on U.S. coal-based electricity generation, the nation’s largest source of mercury emissions. The regulations were a major factor in the record-setting number of coal plant retirements in 2015.

In June, the Supreme Court allowed the mercury standards to stay in effect while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers changes necessary to comply with a 2015 ruling by the high court that the agency did not properly consider the regulations’ cost to industry.

The coal industry and its supporters in Congress are also primed to fight the yet-to-be-finalized Stream Protection Rule. Years in the making, the rule is designed to reduce the impacts of surface coal mining. It has drawn the scorn of pro-coal policymakers and industry leaders including Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, who pledged to sue the Obama administration the day the rule is filed.

The outlook is slightly better for the oil and gas industry, which celebrated in June after a federal judge invalidated rules to strengthen oversight of fracking on publicly owned land. The White House vowed to appeal the decision. In May, the Obama administration announced regulations to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations, which prompted North Dakota to sue.

In the final months of his second term, President Obama continues to push back against efforts by Congress to undo proposed and finalized regulations. In July, he pledged to veto a spending bill passed by the House that would block the Clean Power Plan, the Stream Protection Rule and new regulations on fracking.

Partially as a result of that deadlock, court decisions made in the coming months could be the largest determining factor in the outcomes of the president’s vaunted environmental efforts — perhaps second only to the winner of the White House in November.

Bringing Citizen Voices to the U.S. Senate

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 - posted by interns


Armed with a wealth of science and quotes from residents directly impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining, our Director of Programs Matt Wasson defended the proposed Stream Protection Rule during a U.S. Senate committee hearing in early February.

The hearing, held by the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, was supposed to be about the relationship between the Stream Protection Rule, intended to protect waterways from surface mining pollution and other environmental laws. But it devolved into ad hominem attacks by majority members on the rulemaking process and the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Joseph Pizarchik.

Fortunately, Matt brought a much-needed local perspective to the hearing by sharing the personal experiences of people living near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia — and supporting those narratives with the growing body of science surrounding the practice’s devastating health and environmental impacts.

Matt began by telling committee members, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, that any discussion of the Stream Protection Rule must start with the basic fact that existing rules are not working, and, in fact, have “never worked to protect the health of streams, communities and wildlife in Central Appalachia.”

The Stream Protection Rule is expected to be finalized later this year. Read more about the hearing and the Stream Protection Rule on our blog.

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.


How Congress Controls Regional Spending

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Budget Vs. Appropriations

Polluted water flows from a reclaimed surface mine in Kentucky. The congressional appropriations process could affect whether regulators can finalize a new rule designed to protect waterways from some of the damage caused by coal mining. Photo by Matt Wasson

Polluted water flows from a reclaimed surface mine in Kentucky. The congressional appropriations process could affect whether regulators can finalize a new rule designed to protect waterways from some of the damage caused by coal mining. Photo by Matt Wasson

Editor’s Note: Congress passed an omnibus spending bill on Dec. 18. Read Thom Kay’s analysis on our Front Porch Blog.

By Thom Kay

Before leaving Congress, House Speaker John Boehner worked with the Senate and the White House to reach a federal budget deal. While few members of Congress are happy with all of the specifics of that deal, the fact that the country isn’t facing another government shutdown is widely accepted as a good thing.

Passing a budget and passing an appropriations bill, however, are not the same thing. A budget sets a total spending limit and allocates a specific amount to mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending includes benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and food assistance programs, while discretionary comprises nearly everything else, including spending allocations for the military, education, and federal regulatory agencies like the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement.

The appropriations bill decides how much money is allotted to each individual agency, even down to the separate departments within the agencies. As such, the appropriations bill has enormous implications for agencies like the OSMRE. Congress can cut the agency’s budget by allocating the money to a different agency, and can also include amendments to limit OSMRE’s actions. For instance, Congress will likely give the agency approximately $130 million. But legislators can also add amendments, or “policy riders,” that can tell OSMRE they are not allowed to spend a single dollar on a specific action.

OSMRE is currently working on completing the Stream Protection Rule, which is intended to limit the impacts of surface coal mining on streams. Coal industry advocates in Congress are trying to pass the STREAM Act, H.R. 1644, which would take away the agency’s legal authority to complete the rule. If that tactic fails, however, Congress could instead attach a policy rider to the appropriations bill that would prohibit OSMRE from using their funds to complete the rule.

In other words, the OSMRE could still have the legal authority and the total money necessary to complete the Stream Protection Rule, but Congress can take away their ability to use their funds to complete the rule. The effect, at least in the short term, would be the same as passing a standalone bill like the STREAM Act that blocks the rule.

The appropriations process is meant to allocate money, not act as legislation. However, Congress has frequently used it as a tool to counter actions from the executive branch, especially when Congress and the White House are held by different parties as they are now. Political analysts on both sides of the aisle are expecting to see dozens of anti-environmental amendments offered that would, among other things, prohibit the OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule and prohibit the EPA from enforcing the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The chances that such amendments will pass remains unclear.

Aside from telling agencies what they can’t do, legislators also have opportunities to fund new projects like the POWER+ Plan, an economic revitalization package proposed by the Obama administration that is aimed at assisting regions affected by coal’s decline (see page 20 for details). Through this plan, Congress can focus existing funds to projects that would create jobs in Appalachia by reclaiming abandoned mining sites, retraining former miners and coordinating economic transition work throughout the region — all without increasing overall government spending.

Appalachian representatives will have major influence over the final appropriations bill. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate Majority Leader. The POWER+ Plan would direct money to eastern Kentucky, which Rep. Rogers represents, so both he and Sen. McConnell have an interest in making sure Kentucky gets that money. On the environmental side, the Stream Protection Rule would alter regulation of the coal industry in Kentucky, and, along with the coal industry, Rep. Rogers and Sen. McConnell oppose the new regulations.

As of press time in late November, the future of the appropriations bill was cloudy, and answers about how the final bill will affect the environmental and economic programs in Appalachia are still unknown. While much of the debate happens publicly, real negotiations usually happen behind closed doors. In both instances, the people of Appalachia have an opportunity to speak out and ensure that their voices are reflected.