The GOP Congress killed Obama's Stream Protection Rule. Now what?

Living on Earth
Stream pollution from coal mining

In one of its first acts, the Republican-controlled Congress overturned the Department of the Interior’s recent Stream Protection Rule. Coal companies are thrilled about the change, but some mining communities aren't quite so sure about it.  

The rule was originally designed to address problems with mountaintop removal, a type of mining common in Central Appalachia that has buried over 1,200 miles of rivers and streams. In one of its final environmental moves, the Obama administration expanded the rule to protect streams and other small waterways from the toxic waste created by coal mining.

The rule would have tightened requirements for mining companies through more rigorous permitting, water monitoring and stream restoration requirements. But the mining industry hated it and the GOP Congress wasted little time doing away with it.

Rachel Gleason of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance says the rule was overly broad and could have been used to regulate underground mining, like the kind commonly done in her state. “They expanded it to areas that it should not be expanded to,” Gleason says. “[They] said, ‘It’s a one-size-fits-all for the entire nation.’ That does not work.”

Gleason says her group was worried that the Stream Protection Rule would have restricted the ability of coal companies to mine beneath streams, making it virtually impossible for them to make money mining coal in Pennsylvania.

Erin Savage of the environmental group Appalachian Voices disagrees. “It was a moderate rule,” she says. “It wasn’t some sort of drastic, tree-hugger rule. It was updating an existing rule based on current science. ... In laymen’s terms, basically, [mining companies] would need to assure the regulatory agency that they’re not going to ruin water quality downstream.”

Gary Bentley, a former miner in Kentucky who now works as a writer and a mechanic, says he has seen up close how mining affects the environment of surrounding communities.

“Living in the region for 30 years, water contamination has always been a problem,” Bentley says. “We grew up with water contamination issues. Not to discredit the trouble in Flint, Michigan, but when that news came out, I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve lived with these conditions all of my life’ — and it was normal. We didn't think about it as the life-threatening issue that it was. It's very common in my hometown to have 'boil-water advisories' multiple times in a month, sometimes multiple times in a week.”

Still, Bentley says he is “a little bit torn on the rule, as a person from Appalachia and as a coal miner.”

“I may not have the most popular perspective amongst people in these communities, but it's not that they're not concerned with the protection of their environment,” Bentley says. “You're talking to a group of people in a region that have never been offered an alternative to this industry. They've relied on a single economy for over 150 years.”

Bentley says he tries to explain to people in these communities that the rule would not actually have affected the industry.

“The rule really only affected new permits,” he says. “Current mining operations weren't going to be held to those same standards [and] with the decline of the industry, I really don't see any new surface permits being issued or being requested at this time.” Plus, he adds, “We were already losing these jobs back in 2008. So, when you start to talk about the market change in the industry, their ideas begin to change.”

This is one reason why Bentley isn’t crazy about the idea that there is some sort of “war on coal.”

“To say there's a war on coal, especially from a governmental standpoint, is ridiculous,” he says. “It’s just a change in markets. Natural gas is cheaper for energy. Actually, solar is now a cheaper form of energy.”

What Bentley would really like to see is legislation that helps the communities and the states affected by the dramatic drop in coal production. He wants Congress to pass the Reclaim Act, a bipartisan bill to accelerate $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

“Under the plan, $200 million would be distributed to participating states over a period of five years,” Bentley says. “We already have support from numerous senators in West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia. As a Kentuckian, I'm working alongside other Kentuckians to encourage support from the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. The bill has been presented since February of 2016, and he has set it aside numerous times for well over a year now.”

This article is based on interviews that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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