DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency had agreed to an OSM demand not to disclose the study, but realized even at the time that the documents would probably be subject to the state's public records law. Huffman and other state regulators are also upset with not only the OSM regulatory proposal, but with being given limited time to review lengthy documents before providing federal officials with formal comments.
OSM is working on the study as part of its plan to reverse the Bush administration's elimination of the stream "buffer zone" rule, a regulation that, if enforced, could have outlawed any mining activities within 100 feet of streams. Obama administration officials have said they want to take a "more holistic approach" to limiting mining's impacts on water quality and quantity in coalfields across the country.
In the draft report, OSM outlines potential alternatives that range from doing nothing differently to banning all valley fills and prohibiting mine operators from obtaining variances to the general "approximate original contour," or AOC, reclamation rule.
The OSM "preferred alternative" would allow valley fills, but require mine operators to take steps to minimize the burial of streams. It would also place new restrictions on the use of AOC variances.
Under this alternative, the study projects nationwide coal production would increase slightly, as western mining in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota make up for reductions in Appalachia. Total direct Appalachian coal jobs would decline from nearly 23,000 to just more than 15,000, according to the draft study.
At the same time, annual miles of streams buried by valley fills in Appalachia would drop from 71 to 57 miles. Annual acreage impacted by mining would drop from 33,000 to 26,000 in the region.
The study appears to project that the rule and its impacts would be phased in over a 10- to 12-year period.
But it also does not appear to consider other factors -- such as competition from other coal-producing areas and the mining out of the region's best and easiest-to-reach coal seams -- that already have most experts projecting a decline in Central Appalachian coal over the next 10 to 20 years.
The draft study does not provide many details about how OSM calculated its estimated impacts, but says the figures were put together in part by a panel of experts from all sides with knowledge of the industry.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.