House GOP leader again questions Interior on coal buffer zone rule

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is nothing if not persistent, on March 27 sending yet another letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar over the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s stream buffer zone rule rewrite.

The coal mining industry uses the rule to place rock and soil from mine sites within stream buffer zones and OSM has been working on a rewrite of a 2008 version from the George W. Bush Administration that would tighten standards.

The latest Hastings letter expressed disappointment at Interior’s lack of transparency and failure to respond to the committee’s oversight questions about OSM’s “bizarre decision to rewrite a carefully crafted 2008 coal regulation.” The letter reiterates the committee’s constitutional authority to conduct its oversight responsibilities and again renews the request for information sought in a Feb. 22 letter.

“Due to the limited nature of the requests, and the significant amount of time that has passed since this request was made, it is very disappointing that nothing has been received from the Department on this matter,” wrote Hastings. “The deadline of March 8, 2013 has passed and it is unacceptable that no response has been received, no answers given, and that there continues to be no transparency from the Department on the status of this rulemaking or what resources are currently being spent on the rulemaking and the corresponding litigation.”

Last year, the Natural Resources Committee released a report, entitled “President Obama’s Covert and Unorthodox Efforts to Impose New Regulation on Coal Mining and Destroy American Jobs,” detailing information uncovered in its more than two year ongoing investigation into the Obama Administration’s rewrite of the 2008 buffer zone rule. The House also passed H.R. 3409, the Stop the War on Coal Act, which would prohibit the Secretary of the Interior from issuing new rules or regulations that would adversely impact mining jobs and the economy.

Many coal producers are affected by this rule. As an example, Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) said about the situation in its March 1 annual Form 10-K report: “In 1999, a federal court in West Virginia ruled that the stream buffer zone rule issued under [Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] prohibited most excess spoil fills. While the decision was later reversed on jurisdictional grounds, the extent to which the rule applied to fills was left unaddressed. On December 12, 2008, OSM finalized a rulemaking regarding the interpretation of the stream buffer zone provisions of SMCRA which confirmed that excess spoil from mining and refuse from coal preparation could be placed in permitted areas of a mine site that constitute waters of the United States. On November 30, 2009, OSM announced that it would re-examine and reinterpret the regulations finalized eleven months earlier. We cannot predict how the regulations may change or how they may affect coal production, though there are reports that drafts of OSM’s preferred alternative rule would, if finalized, curtail surface mining operations in and near streams—especially in central Appalachia.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.