The Obama administration unveiled guidelines on Thursday designed to protect streams from pollution caused by coal mining—a move guaranteed that sparked criticism from the coal industry and congressional Republicans who have long accused the president of waging a "war on coal."
The proposed rule strengthens a decades-old regulation that requires mining activity to take place at least 100 feet away from streams. It aims to safeguard waterways from mountaintop removal coal mining and stands as the latest effort by President Obama to cement a legacy on environmental protection.
Administration officials say the updated rule will clarify what the coal industry can and cannot do under the criteria and imposes conditions on companies such as a requirement to test and monitor water quality in streams near mining operations.
"These proposed regulations are meant to protect human health and welfare," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said during a press call on Thursday, adding that the rule will play a key role in "helping meet the nation's energy needs and supporting economic opportunity."
It would compel companies to plant trees and other vegetation to restore areas impacted by mining activity. The Interior Department estimates that it would safeguard roughly 6,500 miles of streams across the country over the course of two decades.
Republican critics of the administration were quick to slam the rule on Thursday. "It's no secret that this overreaching rule is designed to help put coal country out of business," Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said in a statement, calling the regulation "job-crushing" and "anti-coal." The Wyoming senator pledged to fight the regulations legislatively, an effort that Barrasso said would "halt this assault on affordable electricity and coal jobs across the country."
Conservative and industry critics have worked to derail the rulemaking for years, arguing that the regulation will imperil the already-struggling American coal industry by curtailing mining activity.
Jewell worked to downplay the potential impact of the rule on the coal industry. Administration officials were also quick to point out that the regulation will now be subject to public comment. "We recognize the importance of coal mining to many communities and we also recognize it's important to work with these communities," Jewell said.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed for the administration to write a strict regulation that will protect wildlife and fish that are dependent on Appalachian waterways for survival.
Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona applauded the rule saying: "Simply releasing this rule is a significant accomplishment, and I look forward to reviewing its contents more fully."
The administration has been working to rewrite the decades-old regulation for year, after a 2008 version of the rule crafted during the George W. Bush administration was voided. The new regulation is expected to be made final next year.
This story has been updated.