WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday proposed a rule to strengthen protections of streams and rivers from coal mining operations, a move the beleaguered industry decried as the latest Obama administration attempt to squeeze it.
The proposal would update 32-year-old mining rules by requiring coal companies to test and monitor streams located in the areas they mine before and after operations to ensure that operators can detect problems faster.
It would also require coal companies to restore streams in mining areas to the condition they were in prior to mining.
Around 6,500 miles of streams would be protected over a period of 20 years, according to the Interior Department.
The proposal, which has been under development since 2009, comes as shares of major U.S. coal companies fall to all-time lows.
It adds to a long list of rules on air pollution and coal generated electricity that coal states and industry groups are vowing to try to topple.
The Interior Department said the proposal aims to clarify what requirements apply to which types of streams to give companies more regulatory certainty.
“We are committed to working with coalfield communities as we support economic activity while minimizing the impact coal production has on the environment that our children and grandchildren will inherit,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday.
The rule applies to both surface- and underground mines, and reflects experience and scientific knowledge gained over the 30 years since the original rule came into force, the department said.
The proposed rule would also add “more specific criteria and procedures” to the government’s ‘self bonding’ program for the coal industry, which allows financially qualified mining companies to leave part of their potential mine reclamation costs uninsured.
Joseph Pizarchik, director of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the proposed rule is projected to have a minimal economic impact on the coal industry.
But the industry hit back against what it said was federal interference and overlapping regulations.
“This is a rule in search of a problem. It has nothing to do with new science and everything to do with an old and troubling agenda for separating more coal miners from their jobs,” said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the Interior Department “cooked their own books” to understate the economic damage that they are causing with this rule.
Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Christian Plumb