Improve the Stream Protection Rule and Protect Wildlife

The federal Office of Surface Mining has proposed the Stream Protection Rule, the first major federal regulatory action in decades intended to protect waters from destructive mining practices. While strong laws were passed in the 1970s to protect streams and other resources from destructive mining practices, the implementation of those laws have been uneven at best.

Mountaintop removal mine threatens streams and wildlife. Photo credit: Vivian Stockman
Mountaintop removal mine threatens streams and wildlife. Photo credit: Vivian Stockman

Mountaintop Removal: A Threat to Wildlife

Frogs are one of the many wildlife species threatened by mountaintop removal mining. Photo by Dave Huth
The result has been incredible destruction, across the nation but particularly in Appalachia. A practice called mountaintop removal mining – a name which very accurately describes the activity – has destroyed or degraded thousands of miles of streams in Appalachia. Tops of mountains are literally blown up in order to reach coal seams, and the rubble (or “spoil”) is then dumped into valley streams below. Not only do streams get destroyed, but the waste pollutes streams when toxic chemicals like selenium leach into the water.

Mountaintop removal and other mining practices are predictably disastrous for wildlife. Streams once teaming with fish, amphibians, invertebrates and other aquatic life and are often left lifeless or destroyed altogether. Animals like bear, deer, fox, raccoons and others also lose water and food sources, or are sometimes killed or injured by the removal and waste dumping.

The Stream Protection Rule: Steps Forward and Needed Improvements

Steps Forward

Here are some of the highlights of the proposed rule that provide enhanced protections for streams and wildlife:

  • Requires stronger monitoring requirements for water quality and stream flow, including mandates to check for toxics like selenium and the presence of important aquatic species to ensure streams can support such life

  • Puts in measures to ensure there are enforceable and site-specific criteria to prevent “material damage” to impacted ground and surface water

  • Limits damage from destructive “longwall” mining (a form of underground mining that cause the ground to collapse) by enacting measures to abate land subsidence and stream de-watering

  • Requires mine operators to restore streams to good biological condition sufficient to fully support use by wildlife and people

Needed Improvements

The biggest flaw of the proposed rule is that it eliminates an important historical protection that prohibits mining disturbances within 100 feet of a stream, if the activity will adversely impact the stream. The proposed rule also removes measures that prohibit damage to streams for mining activities that receive a variance (or exception) from a requirement to restore the land to its “approximate original contour” (i.e., the shape it had before the mining occurred).

Both of these measures should be reincorporated into the proposed rule.

Black bears rely on clean, healthy streams. Photo by Bala K. Srinivas
Black bears rely on clean, healthy streams. Photo by Bala K. Srinivas
Additional changes are needed to:

  • Clarify that coal mining operations need to comply with standards under the Clean Water Act to protect stream and water uses, like fishing and recreation
  • Require monitoring at outfalls where pollutants enter the stream, so it can be determined what operations are causing which water quality problems
  • Extend the proposed rule to ephemeral streams (streams that only flow following precipitation) and it should protect the valuable ecological functions of those streams
  • Stop coal companies from using stream “re-creation” as a compliance tool because the science has not shown that it works
  • Require the strictest standards for waters and streams that support species that are listed as threatened or endangered

Take Action

National Wildlife Federation and our affiliates in Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia joined with 46 other organizations calling on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to strengthen protections for wildlife and streams against destructive mining practices. Read the letter here.

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