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New rule protecting waterways from coal mining will be early target of Trump administration

The rule would protect thousands of miles of streams, and Trump has vowed to undo it.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

The Department of the Interior finalized a rule Monday aimed at protecting waterways from coal mining pollution. It’s a rule the administration has been working on for nearly all of President Barack Obama’s time in office — and it’s likely to be one of the first regulation to come under fire when President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.

The Stream Protection Rule updates 33-year-old regulations, dating back to the Reagan era. The regulations were significantly weakened under the George W. Bush administration, which released the Stream Buffer Zone Rule in 2008 just before Bush left office. The Obama administration began reworking the rule in 2009, and in 2014, the Bush-era rule was struck down by federal courts.

That means if Congress acts to overturn the newly finalized rule — which it has promised to do — the regulations governing coal mining near waterways would revert back to the 1983 rule.

According to the Department of the Interior, the new rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next 20 years. The regulations stipulate that mining companies avoid mining practices known to pollute and damage waterways, such as mountaintop removal mining. The 2008 rule currently allows mountaintop removal mining — wherein mining companies remove all the vegetation from a mountaintop and then blast that mountaintop open with explosives — to take place within 100 feet of streams, so long as the streams only flow for part of the year. The rule also requires mining companies operating near streams conduct more frequent monitoring and testing before, during, and after mining operations take place.

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Coal companies have been vocally opposed to the new rule, arguing that they create too much burden for mining companies. The National Mining Association described the rule as “duplication and interference” and called on Congress to swiftly overturn the rule by passing a Congressional Review Act.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to act swiftly as president to undo regulations on coal mining, and promised to undo “job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy.” It’s likely the new stream rule will be one of the first Obama-era regulation that he and the Republican-led Congress set about dismantling.

The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to submit a resolution disapproving a rule issued by the executive branch, so long as it’s passed within 60 days of the rule being made final. Because it’s a resolution and not a bill, they can’t be filibustered and need only a simple majority to pass — something Republicans enjoy in both the House and the Senate. And a successful Congressional Review Act does more than just disapprove of a particular rule — if a rule is disapproved using a Congressional Review Act, then an agency can’t issue a rule “substantially the same” as the disapproved rule ever again.

The Congressional Review Act has been used successfully only once, in 2001, but with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and President-elect Trump eager to undo the progress made under Obama, it’s likely that the Congressional Review Act will become a major legislative tool in the coming months. The Congressional Research Service has suggested that more than 50 rules could be targeted — from the stream rule to emissions standards for landfills.