What was the Stream Buffer Zone rule?

The Stream Buffer Zone rule had been in effect since 1983 to protect the nation’s headwater streams from being buried by valley fills from mountaintop removal coal mining and radical strip mining. The law required that the impacts of mining be kept at least 100 feet from a stream.

The Stream Buffer Zone rule had been in effect since 1983 to protect the nation’s headwater streams from being buried by valley fills from mountaintop removal coal mining and radical strip mining. The law required that the impacts of mining be kept at least 100 feet from a stream. While the Stream Buffer Zone rule was not stringently enforced, resulting in the loss of over 1200 miles of headwater streams in the Appalachian region, at least there was a rule in the books that could potentially be used to protect the precious waters of Appalachia. In August, 2007 the Bush administration once again proposed major changes in the Stream Buffer Zone rule, virtually eliminating it for mountaintop removal mining to make it easier and more profitable for the coal mining industry to engage in this destructive method of mining.

In October of 2007 the Office of Surface Mining-Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) conducted public hearings on the then-proposed rule change. Even though the rule change would affect several states and communities there were only four public hearings scheduled throughout the nation. Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee were granted these hearings. Virginia was not allowed a hearing even after numerous requests from local coalfield residents for a hearing.

The hearing held in Tennessee was preceded by a rally sponsored by Save Our Cumberland Mountains and attended by almost three hundred people. The public outcry against the proposed rule change was powerful. Dozens of speakers testified and they were overwhelmingly against the rule change. There was testimony from college students, scientists, carpenters, and housewives, all against the rule change. Throughout the country the same reaction against the proposed rule change resulted in thousands of comments being submitted to OSM.

In November of 2008 in a “midnight regulation” the departing administration approved the repeal of the Stream Buffer Zone rule. This parting shot from the Bush administration in favor of the coal industry will allow coal companies to continue their destruction of the headwater streams of Appalachia and the further suffering and devastation of the coalfield communities of Appalachia.

The following is an excerpt from the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth web page on the importance of headwater streams:

Headwaters streams — important ecologically, economically and socially

Here’s a sampling of scientific research on the important role of headwater streams to the health of local communities and the nation as a whole:

  • The loss of the hydrologic retention capacity provided by headwater streams (i.e. the ability to hold and store water) results in increased frequency and intensity of flooding downstream as well as lower base flows (e.g. Dunne and Leopold 1978).
  • Increased frequency and intensity of flooding results in increased channel erosion downstream (e.g. Trimble 1997).
  • Reduced retention of sediments in headwater channels leads to excess sediment transport downstream; sediment accumulation in larger streams and rivers can affect fish spawning success and stream productivity (e.g. Waters 1995).
  • The predominance of organic debris dams in headwater streams (e.g. Bilby and Likens 1980) provides sediment retention, important habitat structure, and sites for critical metabolic activity (e.g. Steinhart et al. 2000). These important functions are eliminated when headwaters are channelized, piped, or filled.
  • Filling of stream valleys by mountaintop removal valley-fill coal mining has resulted in a greater proportion of fine particles in stream sediments and an altered flow and temperature regime downstream (Wiley et al. 2001). Substrate particle size, water temperature, and flow regime are physical parameters with significant impact on the biota of a stream (Allan 1995).
  • The basic chemical composition of unpolluted streams draining a landscape is largely established in headwater streams (Gibbs 1970, Likens 1999, Johnson et al.2000).
  • Small streams in the network are the sites of the most active uptake and retention of nutrients (Alexander et al. 2000, Peterson et al. 2001); hence elimination of small streams from the network results in increased downstream transport of nutrients … with eutrophication and groundwater contamination being likely consequences of loss of the nutrient retention capacity afforded by headwater streams.
  • Headwater streams are sites for physical and biological processing of organic matter from the watershed such as falling leaves (e.g. Wallace et al. 1997) and a source of energy for downstream reaches (Kaplan et al. 1980). The dissolved organic matter and fine particles exported from headwaters are important food resources for ecosystems downstream (Vannote et al. 1980). Hence the elimination of small streams … can result in reduced inputs of food resources for downstream ecosystems.
  • Small, spring-fed headwater streams can serve as thermal refuges for fishes, providing a refuge from freezing for stream fishes during winter (e.g. Power et al. 1999) and cool refuges for young-of-the-year during summer (e.g. Curry et al. 1997).
  • Headwater streams provide unique habitats for numerous species. Their degradation and elimination from the landscape increases extinction vulnerability for aquatic invertebrate (e.g. Morse et al. 1993), amphibian, and fish species (e.g. Etnier 1997)

Click to read the entire article on the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth website.

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