Environment

Representatives of the federal Office of Surface Mining will be in Lexington Thursday to hear public comments on a new rule to protect streams from coal mining damage.

The Stream Protection Rule lays out the regulations that apply to coal companies operating near waterways. It will require the companies to test water quality before, during and after coal mining, as well as to restore streams and return mined-over areas to their previous state when mining is finished.

This new rule updates a Reagan-era regulation that prohibited mining companies from dumping waste from strip mines within 100 feet of a stream. In 2008 under President George W. Bush, the rule was amended to allow a waiver for some companies. That version of the rule was struck down by a federal court in February 2014.

Now, federal regulators are stopping in six cities to take public and written comments on the rule. The public hearing begins at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Lexington Center.

Tim Joice of Kentucky Waterways Alliance said he would like to see the proposed Stream Protection Rule strengthened.

“I think it needs to be much tougher,” he said. “I think we have for too long allowed the situation in Appalachia to degrade almost to a point where it’s not fixable.”

The proposed rule stops short of establishing a buffer zone around streams. It also wouldn’t explicitly prohibit valley fills, the practice of discarding waste from mountaintop removal mines in nearby valleys.

While environmental groups would like to see a stricter final rule, the coal industry complains that the proposal is yet another unnecessary regulation on a struggling industry.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said he expects a good turnout for Thursday’s hearing, but he criticized OSM’s organization of the event, calling it a “horrible process.” There’s no way for people to register in advance to speak, and everyone who wants to give a public comment will be limited to two minutes, except for members of Congress.

“There just doesn’t seem to be a genuine interest in hearing what people have to say with these hearings,” Bissett said. “But as somebody who represents this industry that’s going to be regulated by this rule, if we don’t come out and have our voices heard, we believe OSM will leave Kentucky and say, ‘Well, Kentuckians think this thing is great.’”

OSM did appear to learn from the missteps of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which drew criticism from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when it didn’t hold any hearings on the Clean Power Plan in coal-producing Appalachia. In addition to stops in Denver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, OSM will also visit Big Stone Gap, Va., and Charleston, W.Va., this week and next.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.