New rule protecting streams targeted by a Congress seeking environmental rollbacks

New federal policies strengthen protections for waterways, like this one in Alabama, impacted by surface mining. (© Beth Young)

It took more than 30 years to update a federal rule meant to protect streams from coal-mining waste, but Congress in just days is attempting to kill the rule as a part of rollback of environmental regulations under the incoming Trump administration.

The Stream Protection Rule update was finalized in December “to safeguard communities from coal mining impacts,” according to the Department of the Interior. However, it is among the first environmental rules targeted for the Congressional Review Act. That’s a method to roll back an item of legislation before it goes into effect, while blocking similar rules from moving forward.

“For too long, mining operations have caused destruction of streams and mountains across our region,” said Navis Bermudez, SELC’s deputy legislative director in Washington, D.C. “The rule requires, among other things, mining companies to monitor groundwater and stream water.”

That is “critical information for communities that needed to know their water is safe and healthy,” she said.

The rule also would protect fish and wildlife from mining pollution.

The rule updated 33-year old regulations. It would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest for the next 20 years, according to the Department of the Interior.

Mining companies have often sent waste tumbling from mountaintops into valleys and streams, harming or destroying these crucial waterways.

The Stream Protection Rule was developed, according to federal officials, by using the best available science along with input from state regulators, communities, and mining companies.

If Congress erases the rule, “for the foreseeable future, mining communities would be left without the ability to receive strong protections from mining pollution and destruction,” Bermudez said.

The rule would “require companies to avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources, increase flood risk, and threaten forests,” according to the agency. “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.”

Deborah Murray, an SELC senior attorney, said more than 1,200 miles of streams have been degraded or destroyed by surface mining.

Congress could do away with the rule by the end of the month.

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