Coal country Democratic lawmakers seek extension of Bush mining rules

The conflict between environmental protection and coal extraction is a long simmering political flashpoint in the Appalachian states, which are home to some of the largest coal deposits in the world. Now, amid the extended national unemployment crisis — and with the Obama administration showing signs of cracking down on the destructive practice of mountaintop removal — the conflict has intensified. Yesterday, a group of West Virginia lawmakers called on the Obama administration to meet with them to clarify what the rules on mountaintop mining will be, the Charleston Gazette reports.

mountaintop mining

In a private gathering adjacent the governor’s mansion in Charleston, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), Rep. Nick Rahall (D), Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Gov. Joe Manchin (D) met with industry leaders regarding the mixed signals coming from the EPA on mountaintop removal, a method of mining that sees the tops of mountains blasted away and the debris pushed into nearby streams.

Although the lawmakers see protecting mining interests as a way to boost the economy and employment and will certainly present it that way to the public, environmental groups have long argued that mountaintop removal, in addition to destroying the mountains and streams and ending local outdoor ways of life, also effectively takes the miner out of mining. Mountaintop removal is a shockingly efficient system that produces vast amounts of coal and profits by replacing workers with explosives and earth-moving machines.

At yesterday’s meeting the lawmakers made it clear they were none too happy with the EPA’s actions so far. From the Gazette:

Rockefeller said the White House meeting doesn’t have to involve President Obama, but must be with someone who can provide “good, hard information” about exactly what new environmental constraints EPA wants to place on mountaintop removal.

Rahall said coal executives at Tuesday’s meeting expressed frustration with EPA permit reviews, delays in permit decisions and general confusion about what — if any — new standards EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is imposing on Clean Water Act permits for strip mines.

“We need to know what the rules of the game are,” Rahall said. “We need clarity. We need EPA to get its act together.”

The meeting was originally scheduled to be public, the Gazette reports, but was moved to a private tent at the last minute. Organizers might have feared the arrival of anti-mountaintop removal activists, though no protesters showed up.

Both sides have reason to feel anxious. Earlier this year, the EPA approved dozens of new mountaintop mining permits, causing some alarm among environmentalists that the Obama administration was poised to follow in the footsteps of the hands-off Bush White House on the issue. More recently, however, the EPA announced that it was withholding 79 pending applications for new mountaintop removal projects in order to assess their impact on local waterways. Then last month the agency took an even bolder step, threatening to revoke the permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop mine in West Virginia, unless the owner changed the design to protect local streams. It marked the first time since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act that the EPA had invoked its CWA authority to halt an existing coal mining permit.

Calls to Capitol Hill today weren’t returned. (Today, after all, is Veterans Day, and many offices are vacant.) But the EPA said last month that other existing mountaintop operations can breathe easy — the agency isn’t likely to target them as it did the Spruce project.

EPA does not expect to review additional mining projects in circumstances where the [Army] Corps has already issued a permit. Spruce is a very large mine, with correspondingly significant environmental and water quality impacts.

Hat tip to Mike Lillis. I built on and borrowed whole paragraphs from his blog at Colorado Independent sister site the Washington Independent.

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