On July 27, 2015, the US Department of the Interior, through its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), proposed to revise regulations adopted under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) that govern surface coal mining and reclamation operations near surface streams (the Proposed Rule). According to the OSMRE, “[t]he primary purpose of this proposed rule is to reinforce the need to minimize the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values, with particular emphasis on protecting or restoring streams and aquatic ecosystems.” OSMRE asserts widespread impacts including loss of headwater streams, long-term degradation of surface water quality downstream from mines, displacement of native species, compaction of postmining soils and watershed hydrology impacts. SMCRA requires OSMRE regulations to respect coal’s important place in the country’s energy portfolio. Whether this draft rule strikes a reasonable balance under SMCRA will be the subject of intense debate as this rulemaking proceeds.
The Proposed Rule would significantly alter OSMRE’s decades-old “Stream Buffer Zone” regulations, which nominally require a 100-foot buffer for mining operations along streams, and would expand regulatory oversight in the coal industry. Along with the Proposed Rule, OSMRE has published a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA).