New Bill Would Block Effort To Protect Streams From Mountaintop Removal Pollution

CREDIT: AP/Maria Gunnoe, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In this June 2010 aerial photo released Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 by Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, mining equipment is seen on a mountain top near a cemetery is inside the forested area on that tiny knob of land in the middle of the mine complex.

A plan to protect some of the country’s rivers from mountaintop removal mining may be delayed if a new bill introduced by a West Virginia congressman is signed into law.

The STREAM Act was introduced this week by freshman Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) and seeks to postpone final rules on mountaintop removal mining — a process in which the summits of mountains are blown apart, exposing the coal underneath — from the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM). Those rules, which are expected to be released this April, will eliminate 2008 regulations that allowed mountaintop removal mining in and within 100 feet of streams that only flow during parts of the year.

Mooney’s bill, according to a fact sheet from the representative, would require the OSM to conduct a study on the impact the rule would have on the coal industry, and would delay the implementation of new rules for one year after the study is completed. It would also prevent the OSM from “seizing duplicative regulatory jurisdiction from other agencies” — basically, from regulating things that the Environmental Protection Agency already regulates under the Clean Water Act. It would also force the OSM to “publically[sic] release all scientific data used in the drafting of any new rule.”

“In order to preempt the President from opening a new front in the War on Coal, I submitted the ‘STREAM Act’ this week,” Mooney said in a statement. “The bill would prevent the administration from implementing a new stream buffer zone rule intentionally designed to shut down all surface mining and a significant section of underground mining in the Appalachian region.”

Mountaintop removal is harmful to streams because the rock and soil that’s created through the removal process — which often contains toxic heavy metals — is dumped into streams and valleys, burying them and killing aquatic life. In the last 20 years, mountaintop removal mining has destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams and damaged more than one million acres of Appalachian forest.

Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II wrote about the environmental damage caused by the disposal of mountaintop removal waste in a 1999 ruling that concluded that “valley fills” violated the Clean Water Act.

“The normal flow and gradient of the stream is now buried under millions of cubic yards of excess spoil waste material, an extremely adverse effect,” the judge wrote. “If there are fish, they cannot migrate. If there is any life form that cannot acclimate to life deep in a rubble pile, it is eliminated. No effect on related environmental values is more adverse than obliteration.”

Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), told ThinkProgress that she didn’t buy claims from the coal industry — or Mooney — that regulations like the OSM’s were killing the coal industry.

“Quite frankly, the coal industry really needs to face the facts that there’s never going to be another boom in Appalachia,” she said. “It’s done. It’s over. It’s too hard to get to the coal at this point.”

The Central Appalachian coal industry has been in decline in recent decades, and coal jobs have been lost along with it. A main cause of the decline in coal jobs is the mechanization of the industry: methods like mountaintop removal don’t require workers to extract coal from mines. The coal industry is also suffering across the country from competition from cheap natural gas, and Appalachian coal is suffering from competition from cheaper coal out West.

Keating also isn’t a fan of Mooney himself, pointing to the fact that he was born outside the state and previously served as a representative in Maryland. She also noted that Mooney’s campaign committee accepted more than $108,000 from the mining industry from 2013 to 2014.

House Republicans have acted before to try to stop the Obama administration from rewriting rules on mountaintop removal and other coal operations. Last year, the House voted to prevent the administration from developing a new rule on mountaintop removal in and around streams, though the bill didn’t make it past the Senate.

Keating hopes the rule to be announced in April holds up to opposition, and that it’s well-enforced by officials.

“We should be doing everything we can to protect water,” she said. “Anything that we do in streams is going to impact us in the long haul — we all live downstream.”