Republicans Reverse Rule to Protect Streams From Coal Mining

Source: By HIROKO TABUCHI, New York Times • Posted: Friday, February 3, 2017

Train cars in September at a stacking tube where coal is loaded by Pine Branch Mining in Hazard, Ky. President Trump has vowed to aid the coal industry. Mike Belleme for The New York Times 

Republicans on Thursday took one of their first steps to officially dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations by easing restrictions on coal mining, bolstering an industry that President Trump has made a symbol of America’s neglected heartland.

Using an obscure law that allows Congress to review regulations before they take effect, the Senate voted to reverse the Stream Protection Rule, which seeks to protect the nation’s waterways from debris generated by a practice called surface mining. The Interior Department had said the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests by keeping coal mining debris away from nearby waters.

The Senate vote was 54 to 45, following a House vote for repeal on Wednesday.

“Make no mistake about it, this Obama administration rule is not designed to protect streams,” Representative Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio who sponsored the move to reverse the rule, said on Wednesday. “Instead, it was an effort to regulate the coal mining industry right out of business.”

The Senate also moved to reverse a separate rule requiring publicly traded oil, gas and mineral companies to disclose payments to foreign governments for licenses or permits. The disclosure rule was aimed at curbing bribery and at helping resource-rich developing countries hold fossil-fuel companies, and their governments, accountable.

After a procedural vote on Thursday, final Senate action to cancel the rule is expected Friday, with Mr. Trump’s signature to follow.

The Trump administration, which has vowed to peel back regulations, is particularly close to the fossil fuel industry. On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed President Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

Exxon had argued that forcing American oil companies to reveal payments to foreign governments would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Full disclosure could also have made it trickier for Exxon to pursue business deals in countries like Russia, where the state plays a central role.

Both the coal and foreign-payment rules were made final in the last days of the Obama administration, putting them in the cross hairs of the Republican-controlled Congress, together with other last-minute Obama regulations yet to take effect.

The Stream Protection Rule, which requires companies to restore mined areas to their original physical and ecological state and to monitor for environmental effects, would have effectively made mountaintop removal uneconomical, experts said — especially when coal prices remain depressed amid competition from natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

But the rule was challenged in court almost immediately by Republican attorneys general in states across the country, as well as the Ohio-based coal giant Murray Energy. The company had previously filed 14,000 pages of comments opposing stronger regulations.

President Trump during his campaign at a rally in October at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.Dominick Reuter/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

“This unlawful and destructive rule is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to destroy our nation’s underground coal mines and put our nation’s coal miners out of work,” Robert E. Murray, the company’s chief executive, said in comments released ahead of Thursday’s vote.

A report released by the Congressional Research Service last month laid out the environmental and health benefits of the rule. Stream restoration requirements would reduce human exposure to contaminants in the drinking water, and the probability of adverse health effects, the report said. The replanting of trees also required by the rule would increase carbon storage and reduce emissions, aiding in the fight against climate change, the report said.

The report also outlined the costs to industry: $52 million in annual compliance costs for the coal industry as a whole, of which roughly half was expected to be borne by mining operations in Appalachia. The rule could endanger up to 590 coal mining jobs in the region, the report estimated, though the losses would be partly offset by engineers and biologists that companies would need to hire to comply with its terms.

Even without the rule, coal industry employment would shrink by more than 15,000 workers, from a total of 90,000 in 2012, the report noted.

Still, on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump had pointed to coal mining’s decline as a symptom of overzealous environmental regulation and the neglect of working-class Americans by coastal elites. He vowed that, as president, he would “put our miners back to work” — a promise that resonated with voters in battleground states, including those in Appalachia.

But the American market for coal is shrinking, with or without new rules and regulations. Utility companies have drastically reduced their reliance on coal. Nationally, about 300 coal-fired power plants have closed since 2008, according to the National Mining Association, a trade group. Many of those plants are not coming back, whatever the policy out of Washington, making it imperative that Appalachia diversify its economy, industry analysts say.

Daile Rois, 56, lives about 2,000 feet from a shuttered coal mine outside Charleston, W.Va. The mine, Keystone Development No. 2, released debris and chemicals into two creeks that meet at the edge of her property and run past her home.

After intense opposition from environmental groups, which documented streams clouded by sediment and monitored rising acidity levels, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection permanently closed the mine last year and ordered the operator to restore the site — a rare victory for local environmentalists.

“Here in West Virginia, many creeks run orange” from the contamination, said Ms. Rois, who moved to West Virginia in 2012 with her partner to take care of elderly relatives.

She called the Republican vote to repeal the Stream Protection Rule devastating, a move that would allow mines like Keystone to stay open.

“Of course I care about miners’ jobs, and I care about their safety,” Ms. Rois said. “But orange is not the color of water.”