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Feds Plan to Revise Surface Mining Law to Ban Toxic Gas Clouds During Blasting

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement plans to clarify rules to protect coalfields communities from the toxic gases that are released when blasting on surface mines.

The announcement was in response to a petition filed by the western conservation Group WildEarth Guardians. The group asked the federal government to prohibit mine blasting that results in orange clouds of nitrogen oxide gas. OSMRE took public comments on the petition, and yesterday decided that some action was warranted.

What the government is proposing is a rule revision to clarify what the law is for coal mine operations that blast on any surface mine—whether that mine is in Wyoming or Kentucky. OSMRE spokesman Chris Holmes said these toxic clouds result when explosives are detonated improperly, and while some companies follow very strict practices while blasting, others don’t.

“And that places the companies that are obeying the rules in a very strict manner at a distinct competitive disadvantage because the companies that aren’t observing these strict rules can move faster, they don’t observe blast area and it costs less,” he said. “So this is an effort to make sure everybody plays on a level playing field and that everybody does what they’re supposed to do to keep people and property safe.”

Holmes said the agency is proposing clarifying in the federal surface mining law that toxic gases are one of the many side effects from mine blasting that can cause property damage—like flyrock and sonic vibrations.

In a letter to WildEarth Guardians, OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik said:

“We intend to clarify our rules to make sure industry and regulators knows (sic) they have the obligation to protect people from harm that could result from toxic gases generated from blasting at coal mines. We intend to propose a definition for “blasting area” and to also make it clear toxic gases and fumes are one of the dangers posed by blasting which must be addressed in order to protect people. Such a rulemaking, if finalized, would help to ensure clarity and consistency in our nationwide regulatory approach regarding the protection of the public health, safety and property from toxic fumes related to blasting.”

The group had originally asked for regulations on nitrogen oxide emissions from blasting sites, but Pizarchik said the agency will address all “blast generated fumes and toxic gases.”

The issue is considered to be more common on surface mines in the Western United States, but Holmes said it happens in Appalachia, as well.

Greg Conrad is the executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an organization that represents state environmental protection and natural resources agencies, including Kentucky’s. Conrad said the IMCC is tentatively supporting the clarification.

“From our perspective, if this indeed is a refinement and a clarification to the existing rules to address what has been identified as a critical concern from Wild Earth Guardian’s perspective, we would likely support what OSM is attempting to do here,” he said. “The danger is, anytime you open a rule of this magnitude, it could also lead to a much broader type of undertaking or application and we would have some concerns if it was something more than a clarification or refinement.”

OSMRE will propose the change to the rule soon; it’ll be open for public comment before any changes are made.

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Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.