The U.S. Office of Surface Mining will ask interested stakeholders — whether from Congress, the coal industry, environmental organizations, or members of the public — to read and comment on a proposed Stream Buffer Zone (SBZ) rule and draft environmental impact statement (EIS) once those documents have been published.
“We have received extensive input from the public, states, and other Federal agencies on issues that we will consider in drafting the proposed rule, including more than 32,000 comments in 2009, and more than 20,000 after we held public scoping meetings in 2010,” said OSM Director Joe Pizarchik in July 23 testimony to Congress. “We look forward to additional public review and comment on the proposed rule and Draft EIS once they are published.”
Pizarchik has been in the center of a political storm, taking blowback from Republicans and some coal-state Democrats, for a planned, more restrictive rewrite of the SBZ rule put in place in the late days of the George W. Bush Administration. The rewritten rule is considered likely to place expensive new restrictions on the ability of coal mining companies to place rock and soil from mine sites within 100-foot buffer zones around streams.
The July 23 hearing was at the House committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Minerals Subcommittee. The tone of the hearing in this GOP-dominated panel can be seen from its title, “War on Jobs: Examining the Operations of the Office of Surface Mining and the Status of the Stream Buffer Zone Rule.”
Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said in his opening statement that everything about the SBZ rewrite process has been “secretive, reckless and wasteful.”
In December 2008, OSM published a final rule that modified the circumstances under which mining can occur in or near streams. The 2008 SBZ Rule has been challenged by ten organizations in two separate complaints filed in District Court for alleged legal deficiencies.
While that litigation is ongoing, the Department of the Interior has identified additional considerations that the 2008 SBZ Rule did not address, Pizarchik noted. There have been significant advances in science and technology since the promulgation of the 1983 version of the rule that were not addressed in the 2008 SBZ Rule, he noted.
“Incorporating the most up-to-date science, technology, and knowledge concerning the effects of surface coal mining is essential to developing maximally beneficial modern regulations,” the OSM head said. “In addition, the 2008 SBZ Rule did not provide objective standards for certain important regulatory decisions, such as a requirement to collect baseline information about pre-mining conditions so that the regulatory authority can accurately assess the impacts of mining and assure proper reclamation. Therefore, OSM began work to modernize its regulations, incorporating new science, technology, and knowledge in areas that can improve, update, and more completely implement [the federal surface mining act].”
He added: “A revised rule that incorporates modern science, technology, and knowledge will enable the coal industry to do a better job of reclaiming the land and restoring natural resources, and in many cases, will lead to that work being done in a more economical and efficient manner. These goals are fully consistent with Congress’ mandate and OSM’s mission, while also retaining much-needed, well-paying jobs, and generating revenue in the nation’s coal-producing regions.”