Industry digs in over mining regulations

Industry digs in over mining regulations

Industry groups, congressional Republicans and nearly a dozen states are clashing with the Obama administration over planned regulations meant to crack down on some of the most harmful effects of the controversial mountaintop removal mining process.

The move would update decades-old regulations from the Interior Department designed to protect streams from mining and waste.

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But while environmentalists are looking forward to stronger protections for the fish and other animals that depend on streams in Appalachia, the mining industry warns that the regulations could make more than a third of the region’s coal unrecoverable and kill hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The stream protection rule has been the focus of years of political fighting, with Republicans accusing Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) of shirking its responsibility to consult with states and cooking the books to hide the number of jobs the rule would kill.

To the GOP, the regulation is yet another piece of what they call President Obama’s “war on coal,” and proof that his ultimate goal is to dramatically reduce its mining and use.

“This 1983 rule has been implemented effectively by the states for 30-plus years,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said in a March hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee. “And yet OSM continues to work on the environmental impact study and rulemaking in secrecy, behind closed doors, without real involvement from the very states that entered into a memorandum of understanding as cooperating agencies with OSM.”

Eleven states cooperating with the OSM on the regulation wrote to House Republicans earlier this year to say that they had not heard from the agency in four years. That served to solidify the GOP’s contention that the Obama administration is going it alone on the rule and avoiding its responsibilities to work with states.

The proposal is now awaiting final review by officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where it has sat since March. The draft regulations are expected to be made public sometime this spring. 

Mountaintop removal is one of the most controversial mining techniques. The practice involves using explosives to blast apart large pieces of mountains to access coal seams. Waste products are often dumped in or near stream valleys, permanently altering the landscape and harming ecosystems.

The Obama administration has been mostly tight-lipped on the regulation. Officials have said they would seek to apply current science to the agency’s 1983 rule on the matter, which generally prohibited mining activity and waste dumping within 100 feet of important streams, although many states have liberally given waivers to mining companies allowing mountaintop projects to proceed.

“The ’83 rule is over 30 years old, and there’s been a lot of scientific advancements since then,” OSM Director Joe Pizarchik said. “We know a lot more about how to protect streams from the adverse effects of mining than we did then.”

The George W. Bush administration significantly loosened the regulations in 2008, leading Obama to launch a revision effort. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court struck down the relaxed version last year, finding that Bush’s OSM failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the impact to animals in and around streams. The court reinstated the 1983 restrictions.

Environmentalists are hoping for an update that could better protect streams.

“What we’ve got now is a whole lot of studies and information that have happened since that 1983 rule was put into place,” said Don Barger, southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked.”

Neil Gormley, an attorney with Earthjustice, said some states have been “laggards” in implementing proper stream protections from mountaintop removal, and he wants to see a regulation that brings them in line.

He said he’s also hoping to see better stream monitoring of pollution, more inspections and more rigorous pollution standards and protections against flooding and acid drainage from mines.

Much of the criticism surrounding the forthcoming rules stems from a 2011 leak of draft documents estimating that they would kill 7,000 jobs. Pizarchik maintains the current draft would result in either a net gain or loss of “a couple hundred jobs,” essentially “a wash.”

The OSM, however, received flak for telling the contractor responsible for the 7,000-job-loss estimate to change its economic accounting practices and later cutting off the contract abruptly.

Republicans cried foul and accused the Obama administration of cooking the books, but Interior’s Office of Inspector General said it found “no evidence” of political interference.

The House has voted repeatedly to stop the OSM from going forward with its rule, although the Senate has not voted on the measures.

The National Mining Association (NMA) commissioned its own analysis of the rule after the 2011 leak, and estimated that as many as 270,000 jobs are at risk in mining and related sectors from the regulation, whose reach, it said, would go far beyond Appalachia.

“This is a regulation in search of a purpose that is already fulfilled by state and federal authorities under the Clean Water Act,” said NMA spokesman Luke Popovich, who was quoted by National Public Radio last year accusing the Obama administration of a “jihad against fossil energy.”