DOI includes Indian Country in stream protection regulation

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a field hearing on the Crow Reservation in Montana on April 8, 2015, to discuss coal development in Indian Country. Photo by A Cheyenne Voice / Native Sun News

The Interior Department included Indian Country in a new ruled aimed at improving water quality in streams and rivers near coal mines.

The goal of the Stream Protection Rule is to minimize the impacts of coal mining on waterways. It affects about 6,500 miles of streams nationwide, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on Thursday.

"This proposed rule would accomplish what Americans expect from their government – a modern and balanced approach to energy development that safeguards our environment, protects water quality, supports the energy needs of the nation, and makes coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future," Jewell said in a press release.

Tribal consultation has not been extensive so far. But the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has met with the three tribes most affected by coal mining -- the Crow Tribe of Montana, the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and the Navajo Nation -- according to the proposed rule.

The Obama administration is also anticipating more consultation before the rule is finalized.

"We invite the public to comment on whether there are unique conditions in any federal program states or on Indian lands that should be addressed in the national rule or as specific amendments to individual federal programs or to the Indian lands rules," the proposed rule states.

The stream protection rule was last updated following the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. Despite the long delay, the coal industry and their allies on Capitol Hill accused the Obama administration of going too far with the new proposal.

The brown areas on the map indicate coal reserves in Indian Country. Image from OSMRE

"It’s no secret that this overreaching rule is designed to help put coal country out of business," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a press release. "Less coal production means more Americans will be out of work and families will be forced to pay more just to keep the lights on."

In April, Barrasso's committee held a field hearing on the Crow Reservation to discuss coal development in Indian Country. Tribal witnesses said the industry provides jobs and benefits to their communities.

“I simply desire for the Crow Nation to become self-sufficient by developing its own coal resources and to provide basic services for the health, hopes and future of the Crow people,” Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said at the hearing, which was chaired by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana).

Only a handful of tribes are engaged in coal development on their lands but federal reports estimate that reservations are home to nearly 30 of the nation's coal reserves west of the Mississippi. A draft environmental impact statement that accompanied the proposed rule included a map of coal reserves in Indian Country.

The OSMRE will hold public hearings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Lexington, Kentucky; Charleston, West Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and St. Louis, Missouri, to discuss the proposal. No meeting was announced for Indian Country.

Get the Story:
New clash with Big Coal set as Obama proposes curbs on water pollution (The Washington Post 7/17)
New rule to protect streams near coal mines (AP 7/16)

Relevant Documents:
Proposed Rule | Draft Environmental Impact Statement | Press Release

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