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ND sues to block new federal coal mining rule

The Great River Energy Coal Creek Station coal plant near the Falkirk mine outside of Underwood, N.D., is the largest power plant in North Dakota. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — The state of North Dakota is suing the federal government to halt a stream protection rule that state officials say usurps their authority to regulate surface coal mining and threatens the industry's viability.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is against the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. It seeks to block an Obama administration rule imposed in its final days.

"This is the epitome of a midnight regulation," North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement. "This case involves a last-ditch effort by the outgoing administration to encroach on the clear authority granted to the state of North Dakota and the Public Service Commission."

For decades, the North Dakota Public Service Commission has regulated coal mining, including land reclamation, and has received top marks from federal officials, Randy Christman, public service commissioner.

"In the most recent evaluation of our program, the OSM said that North Dakota has an effective program with no issues in need of corrective action," he said, adding the rule would "stop much of the coal mining in North Dakota."

Jason Bohrer, president of the Lignite Energy Council, which represents North Dakota's lignite coal industry, said the rule ultimately would hurt consumers.

"The LEC and its members estimate that the rule could prevent mining of more than 600 million tons of coal within the borders of North Dakota, denying counties and schools critical tax revenues, and cost electric customers approximately $50 million annually," Bohrer said in a statement.

The updated federal regulations are meant to help protect surface water and groundwater and essentially require companies to restore mining sites to the condition they were in before the digging began. That would require mining operations to forgo certain practices and conduct more testing and monitoring than they do now, federal officials said.

North Dakota's congressional delegation has assailed the stream buffer rule, which members said fails to distinguish surface mining in North Dakota with those in Appalachia, the coal-mining region that the regulations appear intended to address.

"The administration's stream buffer rule clearly won't work in North Dakota," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement. "Instead of working with states to allow flexibility based on the different mining practices used across the country, the administration has continued its one-size-fits-all approach to the stream buffer rule."

If allowed to stand, the rule would result in "burdensome costs and job losses without any environmental benefits in states like North Dakota," Hoeven said.

Sen. Heitkamp, D-N.D., also said the rule would not work in North Dakota. "Going forward, I'll work with my colleagues in the U.S. Senate and the incoming administration to see if this rule is workable," she said in a statement. "We need common-sense energy policies that provide good-paying jobs and affordable, reliable power for folks in North Dakota and around the country — and I'm determined to make that possible."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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