The Department of the Interior said Wednesday it is taking immediate actions to strengthen oversight of state surface coal mining programs and to promulgate Federal regulations to better protect streams affected by mountaintop removal coal mining operations.
Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) is publishing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding the protection of streams from the adverse impacts of mountaintop removal. The notice requests comments on alternatives for revising the current regulations, which include the stream buffer zone rule issued by the Bush Administration just before leaving office in December 2008.
The 2008 rule modified a 1983 rule that prohibited the dumping of overburden within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream except when such activities “will not cause or contribute to the violation of State or Federal water quality standards and will not adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream.” Environmentalists argue that rule was largely ignored by the industry.
Nonetheless, the 2008 rule change allows a surface coal mine operator to legally place excess material excavated by the operation into streams, if the operator can show it is not reasonably possible to avoid doing so. Because all mountains are surrounded by perennial streams, there is nowhwere else to put the "fill" that is left over when these mountains are blasted away to get to coal seams beneath the surface.
The Interior said while the new rule is being developed, it is taking immediate actions to strengthen protections for streams and communities in coal country, provide regulatory certainty for industry, and bolster OSM’s oversight and enforcement activities.
“America’s vast coal resources are a vital component of our energy
future and our economy, but we have a responsibility to ensure that
development is done in a way that protects public health and safety and
the environment,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals
Management Wilma Lewis. “We are moving as quickly as possible under the
law to gather public input for a new rule, based on sound science, that
will govern how companies handle fill removed from mountaintop coal
“We are moving as expeditiously as possible in the rulemaking process, but we will not take shortcuts around the law or the science,” said OSM Director Joe Pizarchik. “Until we complete the new rule, we have to manage the shortcomings of the 2008 rule. OSM will establish a new practice for reviewing permits under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) that will improve consistency and coordination with other Federal agencies.”
Under the new practice, the review and approval of SMCRA permits must be coordinated with reviews and authorizations required under the Clean Water Act. OSM said it will work with the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate these permitting processes and ensure effective and coordinated compliance with provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Lewis and Pizarchik also announced a number of proposed actions to improve the agency’s effectiveness in overseeing state implementation of their approved surface coal mining regulatory programs. Under these proposed actions, OSM would, for the first time since coal-producing states assumed responsibility for their regulatory programs, conduct independent inspections of operators with state-issued surface coal mining permits. OSM would also conduct more oversight inspections, place greater emphasis on reducing the off-site impacts of mining, and review more state-issued surface coal mining permits and state permitting processes in an effort to improve state permitting decisions. The new OSM oversight and enforcement policy would also include revised guidelines for conducting oversight inspections.
“Through tougher oversight and stronger enforcement of SMCRA, we are putting all hands on deck to ensure that Appalachian communities are protected,” Pizarchik added.
The public is invited to review and comment on the proposed rulemaking and on OSM’s proposed Oversight Improvement Actions. The advance notice of proposed rulemaking will be sent to the Federal Register shortly. Beginning on the date of publication, comments may be submitted using the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at the link below. The document has been assigned Docket ID: OSM-2009-0009.
The public is also invited to review and comment by December 18, 2009, on OSM’s proposed Oversight Improvement Actions.
Environmentalists argue that mountaintop removal coal mining, which provides only 5% of US coal production, has an outsized impact on the environment and communities of the Appalachian mountains and should be halted altogether. For instance, earlier this month, a subsidiary of coal company Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE), began blasting on the last unmined peak in Coal River Valley, West Virginia.