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Federal agency proposes water monitoring rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Coal operators would have to conduct expanded monitoring and perform additional environmental restoration, but would be freed from the threat that a 32-year-old ban on mining activities within 100 feet of streams might be used to stop them from dumping waste rock and dirt into streams, under a proposed rule unveiled Thursday by the Obama administration.

The Interior Department’s long-awaited proposal acknowledges the growing body of science that links mountaintop removal and related large-scale surface mining to severely damaged water quality, the elimination of rich and diverse forests and increased risks of serious illnesses, including cancer and premature deaths.

However, Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement backed away from again establishing a “buffer zone” around streams, a requirement that was never really enforced, allowing mining companies to bury hundreds of miles of streams across Appalachia beneath huge waste piles called “valley fills.”

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Interior officials said the agency’s proposed “Stream Protection Rule” would provide “common sense, straight-forward reforms” that would curb mining damage, while having “minimal” economic impact on the mining industry, coalfield economies and local governments that depend on coal taxes to provide services.

“We are committed to working with coalfield communities as we support economic activity while minimizing the impact coal production has on the environment that our children and grandchildren will inherit,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a prepared statement.

OSM officials issued their proposed rule and a nearly 1,300-page study of its potential benefits and costs just six weeks after Jewell and OSM Director Joe Pizarchik made a low-key visit to West Virginia, touring a coal mine with companies officials but not meeting with local environmental groups.

The rule will be subject to a 60-day public-comments period and generated harsh opposition from coal industry supporters…

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