New Rules for Coal Mines Could Mean Cleaner Rivers for America

The Obama administration lays down long-awaited regulations to protect waterways from mountaintop mining.
(Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
Jul 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

It’s been 32 years since coal companies have had to deal with updated rules on mining near rivers, but the Obama administration put an end to that on Thursday, proposing new regulations aimed at protecting America’s rivers.

The new rules would require coal mining companies to conduct more monitoring and data collection, provide additional protection to downstream waters, and increase the responsibility of operators to restore harmed areas—meaning the mountaintops they blow up will have to be restored to look like mountaintops when they’re finished.

“We are committed to working with coalfield communities as we support economic activity while minimizing the impact coal production has on the environment that our children and grandchildren will inherit,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Opponents argued the plan is just another front on the Obama administration’s alleged “war on coal.”

“Taken together with other Washington regulations that are already having a devastating impact, it’s impossible not to conclude that the Obama administration is engaging in all-out economic warfare on these communities,” Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.

The National Mining Association saw the move as a threat to job security for miners and called on Congress to block the new rules.

“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,” NMA president Hal Quinn said in a statement.

RELATED: Power Generators Fight New Clean Air Rules Even as They Clear Their Stacks

Still, environmental groups feel the new rules are too little, too late—with many saying the reforms to the 32-year-old regulations don’t go far enough.

“Appalachian communities rely on the rivers and streams covered by these protections, and today’s proposal doesn’t adequately safeguard those communities,” Sierra Club senior director Bruce Nilles said in a statement. “The state governments have simply failed to protect our communities and water from the destruction of mountaintop removal mining.”

One major point of contention has to do with the 100-foot buffer zone—the distance coal mining operations have to stay away from rivers to keep pollution from running downstream. The new proposal keeps the buffer in place but gives coal miners a clearer path to operate within the buffer zone when exceptions occur.

“It is long overdue that OSM make some attempt to clarify what is meant by ‘stream protection,’ ” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “We can only hope that this proposed rule moves us forward.”

So, Why Should you Care? Coal mining in the form of mountaintop removal mining has contaminated more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia, according to the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice. The mining results in the dumping of rubble in valleys, where increased sediment, heavy metals, and other pollutants end up in rivers, harming human and aquatic life.

“We need the federal government to create thoughtful stream protections that ban valley fills and ensure an end to this destructive practice,” Nilles said. “As OSM finalizes this standard, we will continue to advocate strongly in order to ensure Appalachia gets the strongest protections possible.”

The U.S. Department of Interior will hold public hearings in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado, and Missouri on the proposed regulations.