New Coal Mining Rule Targets Water Pollution

  • A mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia. Photo: Rachel Molenda

July 24, 2015

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has released a new rule to curtail mining pollution and protect public health. The Stream Protection Rule would require more environmental oversight on surface coal mining and mountaintop removal. These types of mining activity near streams have harmed water quality and been linked to health problems, including cancer in coal-mining regions. This week, Kara Holsopple spoke with Ken Ward, Jr., who covers the coal industry for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, about the details of the new regulations.

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Kara Holsopple: So what are the provisions of this new Stream Protection Rule? What does it do?

Ken Ward, Jr.: The stream protection rule aims to reduce the amount of pollution and damage to water quality from surface coal mining and the surface effects of underground coal mining. It does that by requiring mine operators to go through a series of steps to minimize the amount of material they disturb to reach coal and to try to avoid placing material into streams when they possibly can.

KH: How does the new rule differ from the department’s previous version, which included buffer zones for mining activity around streams?

KWJ: The original buffer zone rule dates back to the early 1980s, and was one of the initial water protection rules put in place after the passage of the federal surface mining act in 1977. Strictly speaking, it required no mining activities within a 100-foot area around perennial and intermittent streams. The problem is that for most of that rule’s life, it was never really enforced—at least as far as valley fills go. Valley fills are these giant sort of waste piles made up of rock and dirt—the stuff that used to be a mountain that got blasted apart and torn down so mine operators could get at the coal that was underneath. And for literally several decades, state and federal regulators kind of turned a blind eye to the notion that that part of the rule—the buffer zone—should stop those valley fills from being built.

KH: Because this rule does allow for valley fills, how can it be effective in preventing streams from becoming polluted or improving the health of streams after mining activity has ended?

KWJ: In the documents that the Interior Department issued along with its proposal, including a very lengthy environmental impact statement, there’s a lot of nice talk in there about minimizing the damage and restoring streams. And the problem with that, and what remains to be seen, is that a lot of the science that’s come out—and a lot of the court cases since the original ruling about the buffer zone—have said that it’s really impossible for human beings to rebuild and recreate the functions of headwater streams. That’s what EPA has said and the Office of Surface Mining is somewhat disagreeing with that with this new rule.

KH: How many streams are we talking about here? What kind of impact could this rule have if it went through and was enforced?

KWJ: Interestingly, there literally have been hundreds and hundreds of miles of streams in central Appalachia buried by these valley fills. The Office of Surface Mining says in their environmental impact statement that their preferred alternative for what this rule would look like would save only about four miles of streams each year from burial—though they also say that the rule that they’ve proposed would ensure that nearly 6,200 miles of stream nationwide are either improved or protected between 2020 and 2040.

KH: Is Appalachia getting the short end of the stick?

KWJ: I don’t think there’s any question that people in other parts of the country don’t necessarily understand that places like southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, northern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, where we’re still dealing with the legacies of past coal mining with acid mine drainage, are what critics call energy sacrifice zones. There’s really a growing body of research that suggests there’s something going on where people who live near these large scale mountaintop removal operations are at a greater risk of all sorts of serious illnesses and premature death. Even if you account for lifestyle factors like smoking and being overweight, there’s something going on here that seldom gets mentioned by the coal industry and is largely ignored by politicians in this area.

KH: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calls the rule a modern and balanced approach to energy development. Of course not everyone agrees. How is the coal industry reacting to the rule?

KWJ: They’re not happy about it. They consider it just another Obama administration effort to destroy the coal industry, which is really rather remarkable. You have here an agency, the Office of Surface Mining, that most observers agree has never lived up to what Congress had in mind of being a kind of a fierce watchdog for coalfield citizens. But the industry has effectively painted it as part of Obama’s “war on coal.” This rule will require the industry to do a lot more water quality sampling before, during and after mining, which the industry really isn't happy about.