Under seldom-used law, Congress reverses Obama environmental rule affecting coal mining

The rule would have imposed more stream monitoring and testing before, during and after mining projects. Operators would be expected to detect and correct any ecological problem that arises using that data.

The rule also would have held financially accountable any company that seriously degrades downstream water quality or fails to adequately reconstruct streams.

"It would have been a giant baby step," said Kristy Meyer, managing director of natural resources for the Ohio Environmental Council. "The gutting of this rule signals that we are going to put company profits over the safety and protection of drinking water."

Republican lawmakers have vowed to aim the Congressional Review Act at other recent environmental regulations as well, including rules about methane flaring and financial-filing requirements for oil, natural gas and mineral developers.

Meyer said environmental advocates are bracing for those rollbacks. "I think everybody is really worried. We're waiting for the dust to settle."

For Christian Palich, Ohio Coal Association president, the developments have eased some worries. Pulling back the Stream Protection Rule allows the struggling industry to dodge a political attack, he said. Unchecked, Palich said, it would have virtually shut down underground mining in Ohio.

"It would have looked a lot grimmer. We think this is going to be a great tourniquet for the industry," Palich said. "I can't underscore how big a victory this is for coal country ... and for it to go away within the first 30 days of the Trump administration is unbelievable."

But coal production's fall to its lowest level in decades has been mostly attributed to steep competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable-energy sources.

In 2015, Ohio coal sales fell 31 percent and failed to exceed $1 billion for the first time since 2007, according to an Ohio Department of Natural Resources annual report on mineral sales and production.

Coal producers in the state employed about 2,350 people in 2015.

In December, Interior officials projected that the Stream Protection Rule would cost fewer than 300 jobs in the country.

For Meyer and other environmentalists, the negative impact of rule-making on coal is a red herring. "This is a dying industry — and it's not dying because of regulation," she said. "They're hanging on by a thread."

Date Published: 

Saturday, February 4, 2017