WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is imposing new measures designed to better protect streams from coal mining, a move the struggling industry calls a significant blow to jobs.
The rule from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has taken five years to complete. During that time resentment toward the president has grown from the mining industry and Republican lawmakers who accuse him of waging a constant "war on coal."
At the same time there's increasing evidence of harm from mountaintop removal mining. That includes U.S. Geological Survey findings that Appalachian streams impacted by mountaintop mining have less than half as many fish species and about a third as many fish as other streams.
The new rule is meant to protect such Appalachian streams. But it's receiving mixed reviews from environmental groups, who say it won't stop mining waste from being dumped into streams.
The new rule has demands for how companies must limit pollution and test water sources before and after mining. It includes requirements for how companies must restore streams and plant trees and vegetation in mined areas. The rule will become final next year after public review.
"These proposed regulations are meant to promote human health and welfare by protecting and restoring the environment, while helping to meet the nation's energy needs," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday as she announced the rule.
Jewell downplayed the rule's impact on coal industry employment. She said it would mean the loss of about 460 coal jobs, but also the creation of 250 new jobs for doing restoration work.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the Obama Administration has tried to hide the impact. The Office of Surface Mining's own analysis of an earlier version of the rule said that it would cost 7,000 jobs.
"While we have yet to see the proposed rule, we are confident that yet another new regulation from the Obama Administration about Kentucky coal is going to be bad news for Kentuckians," Bissett said in an email.
The number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky has plummeted by half in recent years. Coal is struggling to compete with cheap natural gas and the industry says environmental regulations are hurting.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said the new rule is aimed at harming his state.
"I will continue to do all I can to fight back against the Obama Administration's repeated and gratuitous attacks on Kentuckians whose only crime is working hard to maintain a reliable source of energy and provide for their families," McConnell said in a written statement.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the rule is "job-crushing." He pledged to push legislation to overturn it.
Former deputy Interior secretary David Hayes said the rule is much needed. He said it includes "bonding reforms so that taxpayers are not left footing the bill for environmental damage."
"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, who is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Environmental groups said the new rule strengthens water quality monitoring, makes companies more responsible for environmental damage and offers some additional protections.
But they argued that the new rule doesn't go nearly far enough. There is supposed to be a 100-foot buffer from streams in existing regulations, but states commonly give waivers.
"It's not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams," said Thom Kay, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental group.
Teri Blanton, a leader of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, which works on environmental, economic and voting rights issues, said her group will push the Interior Department "to ensure the stream protection rule does indeed protect" before the rule becomes final.