“Clean air is vitally important,” President-elect Donald Trump told the New York Times last November, adding, “Clean water, crystal-clean water is vitally important.”
That was then. Surrounded by legislators from Kentucky and West Virginia, President Trump this afternoon signed House Joint Resolution 38, in a scribble striking down eight years of outreach behind an Obama-era Stream Protection Rule designed to prevent obliteration of largely Appalachian watersheds by the mountain top removal mining waste disposal method known as “valley fill dumping.” This doesn’t so much pollute streams as obliterate them, leaving drinking water wells of downstream communities brimming with pollutants such as arsenic and selenium.
“Everybody’s been great,” said Trump to onlookers. “We appreciate it very much, special people, special workers. We’re bringing it back and we’re bringing it back fast. It’s been very few days since I’ve been here. And I think this is long ahead of schedule. It’s about four years faster than they thought it would happen.”
The bill, produced by Congress so fast that satirist Samantha Bee likened legislators to “Amish twins on rumprsinga,” represents one of the earliest victories of the 115th Congress using the obscure Congressional Review Act, which allows a straight-up senate majority rather than 60 votes to reverse rules enacted during the last six months of a previous administration.
Passage of H.J.R. 38, or the “Disproving the Stream Protection” Rule, marks a sharp reversal of fortune for coal companies, whose fortunes under the Obama administration tanked as fracking made natural gas a preferred and cheaper alternative. In coal country, however, the villain was cast as regulation.
Timing gave logic to political misdirection. As cheap gas boomed, in 2009, Obama-era regulation came to coal country. Combined with tightened enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency of the Clean Water Act was more focused approval of mine permits by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior. Big coal not only lost a series of bruising court battles with the EPA, but it underestimated what seven years of community outreach by Interior could do when Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in 2015 published a draft new Stream Protection Rule.
That it only became law in 2016, a mere month before the Trump inauguration, set this long, truly democratic approach up for fast sacrifice under the CRA.
Any chance of sparing the rule died in the Senate when four Democrats — Joe Manchin (WV), Sen Joe Donnelly (IN), Sen Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Sen Claire McCaskill (MO) — voted with Republicans. It takes a special kind of politician to put water quality before a promise trippier than opiod addiction — that coal jobs will come back to coal country in the era of cheap gas. That special type would be Rep John Yarmuth (D-KY), who took the House floor during the debate of H.J.R. 38 and, Erin Brockovich-style, offered fellow congressmen a drink of yellow water from a contaminated family well.
None of his fellow lawmakers took him up on the offer.
What can be done to protect streams now?
“Enforce the 1983 buffer zone rule,” says Earthjustice spokeswoman Jessica Hodge.
An Earth Observatory thirty year time lapse view of mountain top removal in Boone County, West Virginia.
Boone County environmental non-profit: Appalachian Voices.
Department of Interior Stream Protection Rule history: Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
Rep John A. Yarmuth, D-KY, invites congressional Republicans to taste stream water polluted with mining waste.