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Federal regulator visits ND coal mine

BEULAH -- After a trip to a North Dakota coal mine Tuesday, a U.S. Department of the Interior official agreed to take more of the state's concerns into consideration when enacting federal regulation.

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BEULAH -- After a trip to a North Dakota coal mine Tuesday, a U.S. Department of the Interior official agreed to take more of the state’s concerns into consideration when enacting federal regulation.

Along with North Dakota’s congressional delegation, Janice Schneider, Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, toured The Coteau Properties Freedom Mine near Beulah to hear how the agency’s proposed Stream Protection Rule would affect miners in the state.

Sen. John Hoeven’s, R-N.D., office said the delegation wanted Schneider to see how streams may form in the spring then dry up during the summer. She was escorted to a yet unmined portion of mine property where groundwater was coming out of a sidehill and flowing in a seasonal stream before returning underground.

“So there’s no stream, stream, no stream, stream,” said David Straley, a spokesman for the mine’s parent company, North American Coal.

Straley said, under the rule as written, North American would be prevented from mining the coal in that area. It is the inclusion of these intermittent streams and waterways that permeate the Prairie Pothole region in the proposed rule that causes the industry concern.

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This would take more than 600 million tons of otherwise mineable coal in the state off the table, according to the Lignite Energy Council. It could lead to $50 million annually in additional compliance costs related to additional monitoring and data collection, as well as additional box cuts needed to mine around areas.

When the proposed rule was introduced, industry was allowed 60 days to review and make comment on the 2,000-page document. Straley said they made initial comments but, as they continued to review the rule, they found more impacts. As a result of her visit, Schneider has agreed to accept those additional comments.

“We think she’s pretty serious about it; we’re hopeful,” Straley said.

When it comes to returning the land to its original state one mining is completed, Straley said the proposed rule would also prevent North American from putting what was previously agricultural land back to agricultural use.

For example, portions of the rule would require what started as a 25-foot seasonal stream to be put back as a 225-foot stream. Tree brush and rootballs would have to be pushed back into waterways.

“Most farmers farm through those things,” Straley said.

The congressional delegation said the problem stems from the agency trying to apply rules for Appalachian coal mining to all coal mining.

“The rule was initially intended to address issues with Appalachian mining practices, but shows little understanding of the mining practices of the lignite industry or the geography of North Dakota,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement.

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“In North Dakota, we already have a pretty rigorous process for reclamation,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who used to oversee coal mine reclamation during his time on the North Dakota Public Service Commission. “We were stewards of this land long before the Obama administration came …. We’ve won awards for reclamation.”

Buying time, the North Dakota delegation helped to include language in 2014 and 2016 federal spending bills to halt the rule for a year at a time, requiring the agency to consult each state on the proposal. They have vowed to do this again in 2017 if concerns aren’t addressed.

The lawmakers also said they will push the agency to remain engaged with the coal industry and state regulators and Tuesday was the beginning of that dialogue.

“We are pleased Secretary Schneider accepted additional comments on the proposed Stream Protection Rule after a day’s worth of discussion and tour of coal mining reclamation at the Freedom Mine. The opportunity for additional input is vital to the formation of the final rule, and we hope they will seriously consider re-opening the public comment period,” Joe Friedlander, director of regulatory affairs for North American Coal, said in a statement.

Schneider told industry that the proposed rule is expected to be finalized in the coming months, which Straley expects will be two to four months from now.

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