WASHINGTON — The Obama administration proposed new regulations Thursday designed to reduce the impact of coal mining on the nation’s streams, a long-anticipated move that met quick resistance from Republicansl, even as the administration projected only modest job losses in coal country.
Current federal regulation designed to protect streams near coal mines date back to 1983. The new regulations would maintain a buffer zone that prevents coal mining from within 100 feet of streams to prevent debris from being dumped into the water. But the proposal also sets clearer guidelines for companies to follow if exceptions to the 100-foot rule occur, including a requirement that companies offset the environmental impact of the mining.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the regulation as a balanced approach to energy development that also safeguards the environment. In all, she projected that about 200 jobs would be lost if the regulation goes into effect as proposed. Officials also projected that electricity costs would only go up one-tenth of 1 percent.
“We recognize the importance of coal mining to many communities,” Jewell said in a conference call with reporters.
GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill quickly assailed the proposed regulation as designed to help put coal companies out of business, and they promised to thwart it.
“Clearly, the Obama administration will stop at nothing to stomp out American livelihoods dependent on coal,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The Interior Department issued a summary of the regulation Thursday that said it would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to a condition capable of supporting the land uses available before mining activities took place. Companies also would have to replant native trees and vegetation.
Mine operators already often undertake such restoration work. The proposed rule acknowledges those advancements and seeks greater consistency from companies to expedite forest recovery.
The administration has made clear for some time that it intended to develop a new rule designed to keep pace with changes in science and mining practices that have evolved over the past three decades. The biggest impact will be felt in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Leading up to the release of the proposal, Republicans sought to undercut the legitimacy of process that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement undertook in developing it. A House committee posted letters from nine states withdrawing from an environmental review process that coincided with the rule’s development amid complaints about a lack of engagement from the administration on the matter.
But Jewell emphasized that the rule took more than five years to develop precisely because the administration was careful to ensure public input and it wanted to use accurate data.
President George W. Bush sought to relax the existing regulations shortly leaving office. A regulatory change at that time allowed excess spoils to be place in streams, but added new requirements designed to reduce the adverse environmental impact. A federal court threw out the rule after environmental groups filed a lawsuit, and the 1983 version was reinstated.
The department will hold public hearings in five states to get public feedback: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and Missouri.