Protecting Streams from Coal Mining

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s proposed rule, the Stream Protection Rule, will help to protect waterways from the adverse impacts of coal mining.

Steve White

The origins of rivers are small unnamed networks of wetlands and waterways that come together above and below ground as they flow downstream eventually forming your favorite streams and creeks. The health of these small streams and wetlands is critical to the water quality and quantity of all downstream waterways. These headwaters are vital to mitigating flooding, recycling nutrients, and providing habitat for wildlife. If these important waters are polluted, filled in, or otherwise compromised the entire stream network will be adversely affected.

A new rule proposed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Stream Protection Rule (the Rule),  should help protect the headwaters of rivers including perennial, intermittent, and maybe ephemeral streams, from many of the adverse impacts of coal mining. You might think that these headwaters are already protected under the new Clean Water Rule; however the Clean Water Rule only addresses the definition of “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act, which only applies to surface waters. The Stream Protection Rule will apply to surface and subsurface waters affected by coal mining. The Rule will replace the decades old rule that currently regulates the impacts of coal mining on America’s waters and will be a step towards better protection of headwater streams, native wildlife, and the quality of water both above and below the surface.

To help ensure the nation’s rivers withstand mining activity, the Stream Protection Rule should:

  • Define what would be material damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area and require that permits include the point at which that damage would occur.
  • Provide guidance on how to establish a baseline of environmental health for a mining site that could then be used to help determine the impacts mining has on that site.
  • Provide guidance on how to monitor water quality before, during, and after mining activities.
  • Require restoration of perennial and intermittent streams that impact the quality of downstream waters (it is possible the final rule may protect ephemeral).
  • Promote the use of current technology, science, and methodologies related to hydrology, runoff management, and stream restoration.
  • Increase mandates to ensure financing of water quality treatment if mining impacts warrant long-term care.
  • Better protect fish and wildlife.

The proposed Rule will be open for public comment for sixty days after it is published in the Federal Register. American Rivers and others concerned with the quality of our nation’s water are requested by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) to comment on how to improve the rule OSMRE has been clear that mining activity can be detrimental to ecological health and proposes the Rule as a means to minimize or eliminate mining impacts to streams. The goals of the Rule outlined above, if properly implemented, will be an improvement over the old rule by increasing stream health monitoring and provisions for restoration of impacted streams.  American Rivers will analyze the Rule in order to identify those provisions that best protect the nation’s critical headwater and small streams at and downstream of permitted mine sites before impacts occur.

For example, as noted above, one area that is being considered is the inclusion of ephemeral streams in the Rule. Protecting these highly productive waterbodies from mining’s impacts should be an important provision of the Rule. As part of our analysis, we will also look to see in what areas this Rule might fall short and need improvements.  One such area is the omission of a clear requirement for a buffer zone around streams. American Rivers would like to see language in the final rule that requires a 100 foot buffer surrounding streams in order to adequately protect them from the disturbances caused by mining.  Science supports forested buffers and demonstrates wider buffers are best to ensure clean water and healthy streams and riparian habitat.

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