Current federal regulations designed to protect streams near coal mines date back to 1983. The proposed rule would maintain a buffer zone that prevents coal mining from within 100 feet of streams to prevent debris from being dumped into the water. But the proposal also sets clearer guidelines for companies to follow when exceptions to the 100-foot buffer occur.
In describing the proposed rule's impact, the Department of Interior said it would ensure that mountains are restored to mountains once mining is completed.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the regulation as a balanced approach to energy development that also safeguards the environment. In all, she projected that about 200 jobs would be lost if the regulation goes into effect as proposed. Officials also projected that electricity costs would only go up one-tenth of 1 per cent.
"We recognize the importance of coal mining to many communities," Jewell said in a conference call with reporters.
GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill quickly assailed the proposed regulation as designed to help put coal companies out of business, and they promised to thwart it.
"Clearly, the Obama administration will stop at nothing to stomp out American livelihoods dependent on coal," said Rep. Rob Bishop, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The Interior Department said the proposed rule would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to a condition capable of supporting the land uses available before mining activities took place. Companies also would have to replant native trees and vegetation.
Mine operators already undertake such restoration work. The proposed rule acknowledges those advancements and seeks greater consistency from companies to expedite forest recovery, the Interior Department explained.
The administration has made clear for some time that it intended to develop a new rule designed to keep pace with changes in science and mining practices that have evolved over the past three decades. The biggest impact will be felt in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Thom Kay, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices, said his group would work to ensure the strongest possible protections as the regulations are completed.
"When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama's legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining," Kay said.
The National Mining Association urged Congress to block the rule, describing it as unnecessary because significant environmental protections are already ensured by state and federal agencies.
"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," said the mining group's president and CEO, Hal Quinn.
Leading up to the release of the proposal, Republicans sought to undercut the legitimacy of process that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement undertook in developing it. A House committee posted letters from nine states withdrawing from an environmental review process that coincided with the rule's development amid complaints about a lack of engagement from the administration on the matter.
But Jewell emphasized that the rule took more than five years to develop precisely because the administration was careful to ensure public input and it wanted to use the most accurate data.
Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the Obama administration's proposal was an important step forward in addressing one of the most destructive practices on earth — mountaintop removal coal mining.
President George W. Bush sought to relax the existing regulations shortly before leaving office. A regulatory change at that time allowed excess spoils to be placed in streams, but added new requirements designed to reduce the adverse environmental impact. A federal court threw out the rule after environmental groups filed a lawsuit, and the 1983 version was reinstated.
The department will hold public hearings in five states to get public feedback to the proposal: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and Missouri.