In theory, there's a law to mitigate this. The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act says that companies should not cause "material damage to the environment to the extent that it is technologically and economically feasible." But that language is awfully vague. And the agency responsible for enforcing this law, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), hasn't clarified what this language means since publishing a "stream buffer rule" in 1983.
Community groups and environmentalists had long pushed to update the regulations here, especially since mining practices have changed dramatically over the past three decades and scientists have learned more about the harmful effects of water pollution from coal mining. In 2008, the George W. Bush administration published an update to the "stream buffer rule," but those efforts later got struck down in court for running afoul of the Endangered Species Act.
So enter the Obama administration. Ever since 2009, OSMRE has been trying to update its guidance here. That process involved poring through reams of research on the effects of coal mining on ecosystems, holding endless hearings, talking to various stakeholders, and so on.
The final rule got published on December 19, 2016 — just before Obama left office. And while it's incredibly complex, updating hundreds of older regulations, it basically puts a couple of key restrictions in place for coal companies seeking permits to expand or start new mines in the future:
- First, a company that wants to open either a surface or underground mine needs to avoid causing damage to the "hydrologic balance" of waterways outside of its permit area. The rule goes into excruciating detail on what these definitions mean, but it's basically a much stricter limit on dumping waste and debris in surrounding ecosystems.
- Second, companies and regulators have to do a baseline assessment of what nearby ecosystems look like before any new mining begins. They then have to monitor affected streams during mining, and the company has to develop a plan for restoring damaged waterways to something close to their natural state after mining is done.
This sounds pretty basic, but there were numerous debates over best how to define "hydrologic balance," how exactly to monitor waterways, how to deal with the variety of coal industry practices out there, and so on.
In the end, environmentalists certainly weren't thrilled with the rule — many groups didn't think it went far enough to restrict the dumping of debris, and they don't believe coal companies can restore damaged streams fully to their prior state after mining. But on balance, they thought the rule an improvement over the status quo. OSMRE estimated that it would protect an additional 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest.
"The rule doesn't address all the problems with the most destructive mining practices," says Thom Kay of Appalachian Voices. "But it makes it a little bit harder for coal companies to pollute streams. And it makes it a little easier for communities to fight back against mines if they don't want them."