Stream Protection Rule: What It Sought to Protect and Why It Was Repealed

SPR outlined regulations on mountaintop mining and its environmental impact

A stream flowing through the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania that has been affected by coal mining pollution.
A stream flowing through the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania that has been affected by coal mining pollution. kstevecope / Getty Images

The Stream Protection Rule (SPR) was an Obama-era regulation covering waterways near mountaintop coal mining operations in the United States. The practice of “mountaintop mining removal” that occurs in mountain regions from Ohio to Virginia, especially in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky, often consists of blowing up the tops of mountains to reach the coal underneath. Historically, companies dumped the resulting mining waste and debris into the valleys below, contaminating streams and waterways with toxic heavy metals like selenium, mercury, and arsenic. 

The Stream Protection Rule sought to strengthen mountaintop mining regulations. Some of the highlights included establishing a 100-foot buffer area around streams to combat pollution and preserve native species, initiating the restoration of waterways that had already been damaged, and dictating that coal mines could not damage hydraulic balance outside permitted areas. The goal was to avoid or minimize adverse impacts on surface water, groundwater, wildlife, and other natural resources while protecting local communities from the long-term effects of pollution and safeguarding coal mining jobs. President Obama finalized the rule on December 16, 2016, just a month before his last day in office.

By February 16, 2017, the Trump administration had used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the law. The rule’s sudden demise created a rift in the scientific community, who foreshadowed the potential environmental implications, and politicians, who saw the rule as a hindrance to the already struggling coal industry's economic viability.

Contents of the Stream Protection Rule

Originally developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), a branch of the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), the Stream Protection Rule updated 33-year-old regulations in coal mining procedures. In an effort to minimize environmental impact on surface water and groundwater in coal mining communities, the U.S. Department of the Interior spent multiple years worth of public process to bring the rule to light by 2016.

According to the DOI, the rule would help protect “6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades, preserving community health and economic opportunities while meeting the nation’s energy needs.” Ideally, the newly established regulations would keep pace with modern mining practices while supporting economic opportunities and safeguarding the environment. Apart from requiring companies to avoid harmful mining practices that permanently polluted water sources and to restore streams or mined areas to their natural condition before mining activities (by planting native trees or vegetation, for example), the rule required testing and monitoring of affected stream conditions before, during, and after operations.

Mountain coal mining in West Virginia with the Appalachian Mountains in the background.
ScottNodine / Getty Images

Criticism and Repeal

Because the rule wasn't finalized until late 2016, it presented an easy target for the Trump administration to overturn using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) of 1996. The CRA allows the House and Senate to kill recent regulations via majority votes in both chambers as long as the current president approves. The repeal reverted regulations immediately to what they were previously, before the Stream Protection Rule was implemented. Before President Trump used the Congressional Review Act against the SPR, the law had only been used once in 20 years.

The repeal of the Stream Protection Rule caused quite a bit of controversy. Some supported President Trump’s decision, saying that the rule had the potential to eliminate thousands of jobs in the coal mining industry. Others cited the fact that the coal mining industry had already been declining well before the rule had been put into place due to competition from natural gas, and more recently, renewable energy sources. The OSMRE itself asserted that the SPR would not hurt coal-related employment. On the contrary, it would actually increase an average of 156 full-time jobs, even considering the industry's declining state. In a factsheet published on the government website, the OSMRE stated:

“Where coal production is unprofitable under market conditions, jobs are predicted to decline by an average annual aggregate of 124 fulltime jobs. This will be more than offset by an average annual gain of 280 fulltime jobs needed to comply with the rule where mining remains profitable, such as additional jobs like heavy machine operators for materials placement and water sampling professionals.”

They backed up the statement with evidence from the Energy Information Administration, which reported that total coal industry employment had decreased 12% from 2014 to 2015.

Then there was, of course, the environmental arguments against the rule’s elimination, many of which came from communities in Central Appalachia. The region's leading grassroots environmental organization, Appalachian Voices, said that accessible coal from Central Appalachian mines had been running out for more than 100 years. “For these reasons, repealing the rule will have extremely little, if any, impact on reviving the coal industry, despite what the president or congressional allies say,” said Central Appalachian Program Manager Erin Savage in a press release posted the day that President Trump was scheduled to sign the resolution repealing the Stream Protection Rule. “By the same token, mountaintop removal mining is still happening in Central Appalachia. This rule would have helped protect water quality and public health in the region.” The Appalachian Voices program has advocated for environmental protection and coal mining affected communities for over 20 years.

They had more than enough scientific evidence to back them up. Studies within the four Appalachian mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia found 703 more deaths from cardiovascular disease in mining communities and 369 more deaths in conventional mining areas when compared with non mining areas within the same states between 1999 and 2006. From 1996 to 2003, an analysis of 1.9 million births in MTR mining counties found that 26% were more likely to have a birth defect than those born in non mining areas.

What Happens Now

The negative effects of coal waste in rivers and other mining-based water pollution also takes a toll on wildlife. For example, scientists in West Virginia sampled macroinvertebrates in a local mining-affected river, known as Mud River, monthly from 2012 to 2013. They found significant changes to the aquatic insect community due to the loss of other sensitive organisms. In parts of the river unaffected by mining, mayfly insects (which contribute to the ecosystem by preventing algae buildup and provide an important source of prey for wildlife) accounted for 0.2% of biological production compared to about 14% in unmined sites.

The same goes for coal mining water contamination. In 2020, the scientific journal Science of The Total Environment released data on 23 Appalachian headwater streams monitored for soluble salt accumulation from 2011 to 2019 (a common side effect of coal mining). The experts found limited evidence for recovery of macroinvertebrates, indicating that water-soluble salt accumulation and its biological impact would likely persist for decades in Appalachian streams.

Since the CRA reverted Stream Protection Rule regulations, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act remains the primary federal law regulating the environmental effects of coal mining in the United States. The Act prohibits surface coal mining within any National Park System boundaries and gives the NPS authority over decisions regarding external surface coal mining.

The Act, enacted in 1977, was meant to be a temporary measure until states could adopt their own regulatory programs, though even today, only 24 have done so. An amendment in 2006 authorized Indigenous communities to apply for primary regulatory responsibility of an affected area, but currently, no tribal government has achieved approval.

View Article Sources
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