OSM putting new stream protection rule, impacting coal mining, out for comment

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining will publish in the July 27 Federal Register both a draft version of its new stream buffer zone rule, which will impact coal mining in the U.S., and a notice about the issuance of the draft version of an accompanying regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for that rule.

“The primary purpose of this proposed rule is to reinforce the need to minimize the adverse impacts2 of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values, with particular emphasis on protecting or restoring streams and aquatic ecosystems,” said the draft rule. “The proposed rule, if adopted as final, also will enhance public health by reducing exposure to contaminants from coal mining in drinking water.”

The proposed rule, which is over 1,200 pages long, has the following seven major elements:

  • First, it defines the term “material damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area” and requires that each permit establish the point at which adverse mining-related impacts on groundwater and surface water reach an unacceptable level; i.e., the point at which adverse impacts from mining would cause material damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area.
  • Second, the proposed rule sets forth how to collect adequate premining data about the site of the proposed mining operation and adjacent areas to establish a comprehensive baseline that will facilitate evaluation of the effects of mining operations.
  • Third, it outlines how to conduct effective, comprehensive monitoring of groundwater and surface water during and after both mining and reclamation and during the revegetation responsibility period to provide real-time information documenting mining-related changes in water quality and quantity. Similarly, the proposed rule addresses the need to require monitoring of the biological condition of streams during and after mining and reclamation to evaluate changes in aquatic life. Proper monitoring would enable timely detection of any adverse trends and allow timely implementation of any necessary corrective measures.
  • Fourth, it promotes the protection or restoration of perennial and intermittent streams and related resources, especially the headwater streams that are critical to maintaining the ecological health and productivity of downstream waters.
  • Fifth, the proposed rule is intended to ensure that permittees and regulatory authorities make use of advances in information, technology, science, and methodologies related to surface and groundwater hydrology, surface-runoff 16 management, stream restoration, soils, and revegetation, all of which relate directly or indirectly to protection of water resources.
  • Sixth, the proposed rule is intended to ensure that land disturbed by surface coal mining operations is restored to a condition capable of supporting the uses that it was capable of supporting before mining. Soil characteristics and the degree and type of revegetation have a significant impact on surface-water runoff quantity and quality as well as on aquatic life and the terrestrial ecosystems dependent upon perennial and intermittent streams. The proposal also would require revegetation of reclaimed mine sites with native species unless and until a conflicting post-mining land use, such as intensive agriculture, is implemented.
  • Seventh, the proposed rule would update and codify requirements and procedures to protect threatened and endangered species and designated critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It also would better explain how the fish and wildlife protection and enhancement provisions of 1977 surface mining act should be implemented.

The draft RIA evaluates the economic and social costs and benefits of the proposed stream protection rule and its alternatives. “Significant advances in scientific knowledge and mining and reclamation techniques have occurred in the more than 30 years that have elapsed since the enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, and the adoption of federal regulations implementing that law,” said the notice about the draft RIA. “The primary purpose of the proposed stream protection rule is to update our regulations and provide regulatory certainty to industry using advances in scientific knowledge to minimize the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values, with particular emphasis on protecting or restoring streams and aquatic ecosystems.”

OSM on July 16 announced that this dradft rule is now ready for comment. The National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, said July 16 that this is the latest in a series of costly and unnecessary regulations from an administration that appears determined to “destroy coal mining communities.” NMA urged Congress to block this rule, which it said will cause further job losses in a high-wage industry, adds nothing to environmental protections already ensured by state and federal agencies and responds to no new evidence of water quality damage.

“This is a rule in search of a problem,” said NMA President and CEO Hal Quinn. “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. The agency’s own reports on existing state regulatory programs show the vast majority of mine sites are free of any offsite impacts, and the agency has produced no evidence to justify more regulations, let alone redundant ones that interfere with state agencies mining and water quality laws.”

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.