Interior reverses Trump coal mining oversight rule

By Hannah Northey | 04/04/2024 04:13 PM EDT

The revamped rule will allow people living near coal mines to more easily bring their complaints to federal regulators.

A pile of coal.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement reversed a Trump administration rule dealing with complaints about coal mining operations. Scott Olson/AFP via Getty Images

The Interior Department unveiled a final rule Thursday that reverses prior Trump administration policy and allows coal communities to more easily appeal to the federal government to hold mine operators accountable for environmental violations.

The final “10-day” rule out of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) was immediately welcomed by a top House Democrat and citizen groups that had pushed to reverse past Trump policy, while the National Mining Association (NMA) blasted the rule and warned it would erode states’ rights and undermine federal law.

The Interior Department in a release said the changes will fix deficiencies in a rule finalized under the Trump administration in 2020.


Sharon Buccino, principal deputy director for OSMRE, in a statement added that the agency cannot do its job effectively without citizen input, which is critical for holding coal companies accountable and helping regulators ensure the protection of public health, safety and the environment.

“This rule will help ensure that citizen voices are heard and that their concerns regarding adverse mining impacts are addressed in a timely manner,” said Buccino.

The regulation, which takes effect in 30 days, is tied to the process by which communities can flag complaints at the federal and state level tied to mining operations. The federal government has delegated administration of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, to 24 states. SMCRA is the primary federal law that regulates the environmental effects of coal mining in the U.S.

When state regulators receive a notice about an alleged violation — excessive dust, water or noise pollution, for example — states must act within 10 days, or OSMRE could step in to do its own investigation. Overall, if OSMRE determines a violation of the federal law exists, the agency then gives states 10 days to respond back to the federal government with its own findings.

In 2020, the Trump administration finalized a 10-day rule that eased federal enforcement at mines. Among other things, the rule inserted a procedure before the notice process where OSMRE and the state would look into an alleged violation before either party launched a formal investigation.

But within months, citizens groups in Appalachia sued to halt the regulation, arguing the language was “inconsistent” with SMCRA, and warned it could delay enforcement or let coal operators off the hook entirely.

The Biden administration last year proposed a rule to largely reverse the Trump-era regulation while expanding what information the agency can quickly gather to determine if a violation of SMCRA has occurred.

Under the new rule, a citizen will no longer be required to first contact a state regulatory authority prior to contacting OSMRE to report a possible violation under SMCRA. Citizens will also no longer be required to state the basis for their allegation of a possible violation and all complaints will be considered as requests for federal inspections, Interior said.

The final rule also allows federal officials to issue a single 10-day notice for violations found on two or more permits, and requires state regulators to respond to a notice with specific actions — not merely a plan — to fix a violation.

Interior’s final rule largely aligns with a proposal the agency unveiled last year.

Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for NMA, said the rule “severely erodes state primacy under SMCRA” and creates troubling implementation uncertainties.

“The proposed rule provided weak justification for why changes were needed and OSMRE has ignored the well-founded concerns of stakeholders, including the states themselves,” said Bernstein. “This is a solution in search of a problem, and the result is a rule that undermines long-standing OSMRE [policy] and congressional intent under SMCRA.”

It also offers up regulatory tweaks that citizen groups had sought and House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) laid out in a letter to OSMRE last year.

“When communities see coal companies cutting corners and violating the law, they deserve to know that wrongdoers will be held accountable in a timely manner,” Grijalva said in a statement. “I applaud the Biden administration for continuing to right the wrongs of the previous administration by putting the health and safety of the American people over polluting industries’ profits.”

Erin Savage, a senior manager for the group Appalachian Voices, said the final rule addresses many of the concerns groups had regarding the Trump administration rule, which she said increased bureaucratic hurdles and decreased the likelihood of federal oversight.

“Appalachian Voices has used the 10-day notice process on several occasions to help community members address issues they’ve had with nearby coal mines,” said Savage. “Now we’ll be able to continue effectively using the process to address health, safety and environmental issues from mines.”