Coal mine rule draws GOP’s ire

New regulation aims to protect streams, groundwater supplies

The Obama administration Monday unveiled a new rule designed to protect streams and groundwater from coal mining, but the threat of a Republican-led challenge of the measure looms large after President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

The Interior Department said in a news release that the rule “updates 33-year-old regulations and establishes clear requirements for responsible surface coal mining that will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades, preserving community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement measure also has implications for underground mines, but the agency estimates the compliance costs will be much less for them than for strip mines.

Interior said the measure “would require companies to avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources, increase flood risk, and threaten forests. It would also require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to the uses they were capable of supporting prior to mining activities, and replant these areas with native trees and vegetation, unless that would conflict with the implemented land use.”

Trump’s transition website,, calls the measure “excessive” and says his administration will rescind it. In a news release Monday, the National Mining Association called for Congress “to swiftly pass a Congressional Review Act resolution of disapproval and (for) the president to sign it without delay.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement, “When the new Congress convenes next month, I will also introduce a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act … to overturn this egregious regulation and work with my colleagues to use every tool available to turn back this regulatory assault on coal country.”

The measure takes effect in 30 days, just before Trump takes office.

One of the National Mining Association’s criticisms of the rule is that it takes a national approach to what the association says are issues surrounding so-called mountaintop removal mining in the eastern United States.

Jeremy Nichols with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians has said a minimum level of protections should apply nationally, with Western waters just as deserving of protection as water in Appalachia.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., has opposed the rule, citing concern that it could result in the loss of some 78,000 mining jobs. That number is the upper estimate in a study done for the mining association regarding a draft version of the rule, which the group says the final rule closely tracks.

The reclamation office predicts an average annual job gain from the rule of 156 full-time equivalent jobs between 2020 and 2040. It says an expected annual reduction of 124 coal production jobs will be offset by an annual gain of 280 industry jobs related to the rule’s implementation.

It says compliance costs will range from a penny a ton for coal produced in underground longwall mines on the Colorado Plateau to $1.40 a ton for surface mines in the Illinois Basin.

Colorado’s two most productive coal mines are longwall operations — Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley and Peabody Energy’s Twentymile Mine in Routt County. Among surface mines in the state are the Colowyo and Trapper mines, which serve the Craig Station power plant in Moffat County, and the New Horizon Mine serving the Nucla Station in Montrose County.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association operates those plants, owns the Colowyo and New Horizon mines and partly owns Trapper. Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said Tri-State is reviewing the rule and had no immediate comment.

Some states withdrew as cooperating agencies during the rulemaking, claiming the federal government failed to consult with them, and/or wrote the reclamation office, urging it to re-engage with the states. Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said Colorado wasn’t among those states. The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety did send comments on the draft rule, supporting aspects of it but also raising several concerns, including that it could delay permitting and didn’t account for regional differences in hydrology, climate, and mining methods and practices.


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