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New clash with Big Coal set as Obama proposes curbs on water pollution

Danielle Gross casts his fishing line into the Potomac River as emissions spew out of a large stack nearby at the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station, June 29, 2015 in Newburg, Md. The Obama administration is proposing new rules restricting pollution from coal in streams and rivers.. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Obama administration on Thursday announced plans to strengthen protections for streams and rivers near coal mines, setting up a potential clash with an industry that is already fighting a proposal to limit air pollution from coal-burning.

The proposed Interior Department regulations would impose tougher standards for water quality around coal mines while requiring companies to take more responsibility for cleaning up waterways damaged by mine pollution or covered by mining spoils.

The proposals are the result of a highly contentious, years-long effort to update stream-protection rules enacted three decades ago by the department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Industry officials have strongly opposed the reforms, saying the new requirements, if finalized, would result in more layoffs and closed mines at a time when coal companies are under financial stress.

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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in announcing the proposals, said her department sought a “modern and balanced approach” that would allow energy development to continue while protecting water quality for people who live near coal operations, particularly so-called “mountaintop removal” mines and other surface mines.

“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,” Jewell said.

Administration officials said the regulations would provide more regulatory certainty to coal companies by clarifying water-quality standards and allowable practices for coal mines. A fact sheet accompanying the proposal said the stricter standards would have “minimal impacts on the coal industry or electricity prices.”

Among other provisions, the proposed regulations would require mining companies to collect water samples from nearby streams and rivers before and after mining and while operations are underway. Companies also would bear new burdens in ensuring that communities near mountaintop mines are protected from pollution, and damaged forests and waterways are made whole after mining is completed, administration officials said.

Mining industry officials blasted the proposal as costly and unnecessary.

“This is a rule in search of a problem,” said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, a trade group. “It has nothing to do with new science and everything to do with an old and troubling agenda for separating more coal miners from their jobs.”

But David J. Hayes, a former deputy Interior Secretary, said new regulations were overdue. “The current rules for mountaintop removal coal mining—which are more than 30 years old—fail to protect local communities that count on healthy streams and clean drinking water supplies,” said Hayes, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Stricter bonding requirements in the proposed measures will ensure that taxpayers are not left footing the bill for environmental damage, he said.

Environmentalists applauded parts of the new rule, while also criticizing what some called a weakening of an existing 100-foot buffer rule that restricts mining activity near waterways. “This proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect streams and communities,” said Neil Gormley,  an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

The announcement comes as the Environmental Protection Agency makes final adjustments to new regulations restricting emissions of greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants. The so-called Clean Power Plan, due to be finalized within the next month, are fiercely opposed by Congressional Republicans who have vowed to fight the measure through legislation and in the courts.