West Virginia, at the direction of Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, sued the Obama administration today to overturn new federal rules on mountaintop removal mining.
The lawsuit, filed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, accuses U.S. EPA of overstepping its authority and asks the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia to throw out the federal agency's new guidelines for issuing Clean Water Act permits for coal mines.
"Over the past year and a half, we have been fighting President Obama's administration's attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia," Manchin said today. "We are asking the court to reverse EPA's actions before West Virginia's economy and our mining community face further hardship."
The suit has been filed at a politically sensitive time in West Virginia, as Manchin competes in a tighter-than-expected special Senate election where his ties to national Democrats have become a primary issue.
EPA in April issued new guidelines for companies seeking Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mines. To qualify, companies would have to show that their projects would not cause pollutant concentrations in surrounding waters to climb past roughly five times the normal level. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the rules would protect 95 percent of aquatic life and ban operators from dumping mine waste in streams in nearly all cases.
The agency has "usurped the authority of the state and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to oversee and regulate important aspects of our environment, like water quality," Manchin said today. "These actions by U.S. EPA are threatening not only to end surface coal mining in West Virginia but to affect all forms of mining in the state."
EPA defended its regulatory efforts today and blamed West Virginia for the impasse.
"Despite many efforts by EPA, state officials have not engaged in a meaningful discussion of sustainable mining practices that will create jobs while protecting the waters that Appalachian communities depend on for drinking, swimming and fishing," the agency said in a statement. "Earlier this year, at the request of the state, EPA issued clear guidance that ensures permits are reviewed using the best science available to protect residents from the significant and irreversible damage this practice can have on communities and their water sources."
Environmental groups are defending EPA's new standards as a needed step toward curbing mountaintop removal mining pollution, but the mining industry and Appalachian lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- have battled them since they were issued.
The National Mining Association last month also sued EPA to void the rules, and 16 representatives -- including Democrats Zack Space of Ohio and Rick Boucher of Virginia -- have signed on to legislation (H.R. 6113) that would require EPA to revert to its pre-Obama permitting program.
"I think it adds more heft to have the state [suing]. They're the one that has the authority and the responsibility for regulating mining," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
"Their belly is full of what EPA is trying to jam down their throat," Raney said.
Manchin fights ties to president's agenda
Manchin's suit comes during his unexpectedly tight race to take the seat formerly held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D).
Manchin was a heavy favorite when the special election was announced in July, but his Republican opponent -- state business mogul John Raese -- has gained steadily and edged ahead in recent polls from Rasmussen and Fox News (Greenwire, Oct. 5).
Raese has pounded Manchin over coal issues and ties to Obama, whose approval rating in the state sits well below 40 percent. The Republican this week launched an ad claiming Manchin supports national cap-and-trade climate legislation -- a charge Manchin's campaign has repeatedly denied -- and calling the governor a "rubber stamp" for Obama's policies.
The National Republican Senate Committee this week released its own ad campaign, telling West Virginians that "a vote for Manchin is a vote for Obama."
Manchin's campaign says the governor has "led the fight opposing the cap and trade agenda of Barack Obama that would devastate the coal industry," in a statement on its website.
For West Virginia's environmental movement, the race has become difficult to watch.
"Joe Manchin has been a tool for the coal industry all his life, including the entire time he has been governor," said Jim Sconyers, president of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. "For Raese to claim he's anti-coal is so far-fetched it's unbelievable.
"If the rules were overturned, it would be back to the same old green light for mountaintop removal and back to business as usual," Sconyers said. "That's Manchin's legacy to this state."