Donald Trump signed a Congressional resolution, passed February 2, a Thursday, on February 16, another Thursday. This resolution overturns a rule signed by President Obama on December 20, 2016, effective on January 19, 2017. It is known as the Stream Protection Rule†. What did that rule require? The rule required that so-called “excess spoil” (earth material) accumulated to make coal seams accessible, not be deposited near streams and bodies of water.
Mining waste goes by many names. Among these are tailings, (leftovers), spoil (earth materials that do not contain but traces of coal or ore), waste, debris, and residues. But the motivation behind Obama’s Stream Protection Rule was not so much dislike of piles of stuff; rather, it was what happens when such piles come into contact with water and are leached, the leachate then running into creeks and ponds. Since mining residues are often rich in sulfur, contact with water forms sulfuric acid; that acid (known as acid mine runoff) can pick up heavy metals that are injurious to living creatures, humans among them, that drink water polluted by mine drainage.
Initially that runoff, being rich in sulfur, forms yellow water. I show a picture of such a stream from an EPA website (link). Now the mere deposit, on the ground, of spoil, tailings, waste, debris, or residues does not directly cause pollution. But where the waste is placed can do so eventually—especially when placed where rain or snow-melt regularly flows. In those locations, the sulfur and heavy metals will be freed, and the water will eventually reach either streams or aquifers. That’s a rather informative photograph, on the right. At this stage few people will be tempted to drink it. But that stream enters a succession of other waters; the color will disappear; the heavy metals will be distributed all over the total water that flows. And such metals don’t have to be present in thick profusion to cause people to fall ill or eventually to die.
Yellow water today. Should I be writing about yellow hair next? The relationship between the two may not be difficult to document.
Acid rain, by the way, is formed from sulfur-containing coal. When it is burned, the off-gases, unless scrubbed clean, will contain the sulfur. The sulfur will combine with water in the atmosphere and, eventually, return to earth as acid rain.
†This is a rule published in the Federal Register, untitled, officially 81 FR 93066; you can examine its 380 pages by following this link. The title assigned to it was taken by journalists and others from the text of the first paragraph of the Executive Summary.