Wikimedia Commons photo
By Steve Moyer
It’s never too late to make a policy that will better protect streams and communities. After a 30-year hiatus, and nearing the conclusion of the Obama Administration, the Department of the Interior announced yesterday that it has finalized a new rule – the stream protection rule — that will lessen the impacts from mountaintop removal coal mining on rivers and streams. Streams and communities throughout coal country will stand to gain a lot from it.
Some will call this the latest shot fired in the so-called “war on coal.” It’s not. The rule is a worthy, sensible effort to reduce the huge impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining (above) on our Appalachian streams and rivers.
The rule increases protection and restoration of headwater streams. It will ensure that mine operators and state and federal regulators make use of the most current science and technology. And importantly, it will ensure that land disturbed by mining operations is restored to a functioning condition that it was capable of supporting prior to mining.
As a native Pennsylvanian, I am a student of the importance of coal to the welfare of my home state and to the nation. Trout Unlimited, too, understands that coal mining will occur in Appalachia into the foreseeable future.
But all of us must realize that in the 21st century there are better ways to access coal seams than blowing off the tops of mountains and dumping the mine waste into adjacent valleys and streams. Filling in headwater streams may be good for the economic well-being of some coal companies, but it is harmful to the health of the streams and the people who live downstream from these waste sites.
Mountaintop removal mining has buried or degraded nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams to date. It has also caused additional harm to downstream areas by introducing sediment pollution, altering stream hydrology and increasing the severity of floods. The Interior Department’s rule will clarify and improve coal mining regulations, which have been manipulated by court decisions and state and federal agency policy changes that go all the way back to the Reagan Administration’s Interior Department in 1983.
Mountaintop removal mining practices create a survival risk for brook trout and other wild trout populations, and impede efforts to restore brook trout in already degraded watersheds. Many streams in the Appalachian Mountains subject to mountaintop removal mining are, or historically were, habitat for brook trout. Brook trout, and the vibrant sport fisheries they sustain, currently live in only a fraction of their historic range.
Trout Unlimited is working with state and federal regulators, communities and sportsmen in coal country to restore streams damaged by the impacts of abandoned coal mine pollution. We have had some great success at cleaning up streams, especially in Pennsylvania. We know first hand that it is far better to avoid coal mine pollution up front and to not have to do the hard restoration work later. Unabated coal mine pollution is good for no one in coal country, and that is why we welcome this sensible stream protection rule.
There is no doubt that some members of Congress, and perhaps some in the new Trump Administration, will want to kill this rule. We urge them to take a new, hard look at the final rule. If they do, they will see a reasonable approach to curtailing the dreadful harm caused by mountaintop removal of coal.
Steve Moyer is Trout Unlimited’s vice president of government affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (571) 274-0593.