CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Here in the heart of coal country, just miles from numerous mining operations, a series of politicians, industry leaders and state regulators yesterday voiced strong opposition to the Obama administration's rewriting of rules to protect waterways from mountaintop removal mining.
Critics spoke in near-apocalyptic terms about the Office of Surface Mining's effort to develop a new stream protection rule to replace George W. Bush-era regulations, saying it would kill thousands of jobs and jeopardize communities that depend on coal mining.
Holding the field hearing in a large, historic courtroom in downtown Charleston, House Republicans brought to Appalachia their charges of President Obama's overreach in monitoring the area's mountaintop mining. But environmental groups called the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing "Masterpiece Political Theater" that ignored the public health issues raised by mining.
West Virginia's acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, who popped in for a quick appearance, told lawmakers he was "extremely concerned" with OSM and U.S. EPA. The Democrat criticized the administration's focus on tougher environmental oversight of Appalachian coal mining and said it had "relentlessly pursued an ill-advised agenda."
OSM is currently working on a draft environmental impact statement and economic analysis for the forthcoming rule. It will likely include additional monitoring requirements, tougher reclamation procedures and better definitions of streams and damage. Nothing has yet been formally proposed.
"If finalized, the rule will throw the nation into an energy crisis," said Roger Horton, founder of Citizens for Coal.
But in a statement, OSM leaders say they are "developing a more thorough rule to better protect streams from the adverse effects of coal mining. The proposed rule and associated Draft EIS will be based on sound science and provide ample opportunity for public input." A spokesman said the proposal will likely be ready by early next year.
The agency has been under fire from all sides. Coal industry boosters want OSM to enforce the Bush-era rule, which the administration tried to scrap, only to be rebuked by a federal judge. Meanwhile, environmentalists worry the proposal will fall short of true protection for streams. They want a strict buffer between mining operations and waterways, something they say would help stamp out the practice of mountaintop removal mining.
Sitting on a raised bench in the courtroom, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said coal communities in his district "would be devastated by the proposed rule change." Earlier this year, he pushed for an amendment to a House spending bill to block OSM from proceeding with the rulemaking. "I have and will continue to fight to have this language included in any spending bill," he said at the hearing.
Johnson also accused OSM of "collusion" with environmentalists. A settlement with environmental groups is a main reason for the agency moving forward with a new rule. The GOP leaders who called the hearing packed it with pro-coal witnesses, allowing just two foes of mountaintop removal mining to testify.
While the administration's effort is meant to address problems caused by surface mining, industry insiders worry it will also have a dramatic negative effect on underground coal mining, especially longwall mining. That is an old but increasingly mechanized coal extraction method whereby companies can remove more material from underground. Even though the industry touts the method as efficient and safer for workers down below, critics point at extensive property and stream damage on the surface.
"These standards could make longwall mines impossible to permit and operate," said Katherine Frederiksen, an environment and regulatory affairs executive at CONSOL Energy Inc. She worries that tougher stream protection standards could prevent the company from mining more than 1 billion tons of coal, resulting in major losses.
Administration critics at the hearing also noted that earlier this year the agency severed ties with the company hired to help perform the draft EIS after a leaked document suggested the proposal would cost 7,000 coal jobs and a reduction in Appalachian production, among other impacts. Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who led the hearing, and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), are conducting an investigation.
"I am deeply concerned that the Obama administration may be guilty of suppressing inconvenient facts," Lamborn said.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a top coal booster, made a surprise appearance. "In West Virginia all we want is a balance between the environment and the economy. We need government as a partner and not adversary," Manchin said. "The approach they're taking is totally unreasonable. The approach they're taking makes no sense at all."
States voice opposition
Coal producing states have been openly hostile to the administration's overall efforts at increased oversight of mountaintop removal mining, and the stream protection rule is no exception. They say the agency appears bent on fast-tracking the process without taking their concerns into account.
"Absolutely, we didn't have enough time to review that," Bradley Lambert, a Virginia mining official, said of the time that states had to review preliminary documents from OSM.
Thomas Clarke, director of West Virginia's Division of Mining and Reclamation, said early documents were shoddy and appeared copied and pasted by a college student. "The process, as far as we can see, is a sham," Clarke said, adding that it seemed "designed to prevent any meaningful input from the states."
OSM said it severed ties with Polu Kai Services LLC, the company hired to help perform the draft EIS, because of concerns about the work completed.
Clarke and his colleagues say the stream protection rule is another step in the administration's effort to disrupt the federal-state regulatory balance that is central to mining oversight. They accuse OSM of wanting to infringe on state responsibility -- and say the agency may be illegally violating its mandate.
"I think Congress must act to restrain OSM and the EPA," Tomblin said.
"OSM has launched a nationwide overhaul of its program," said John Corra, director of Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality. "We think we get it right and we don't understand the need to have this new rule."
Environmentalists push back
Days before the hearing, environmentalists around Appalachia were outraged at what they predicted to be an unbalanced attack by industry and its supporters against the administration's efforts to protect the environment. They traded phone calls and e-mails complaining that, of the 10 announced witnesses, only two were pro-OSM.
Activists accused lawmakers of theatrics and were not convinced when lawmakers, including Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), said they wanted to take both industry and environmental views into account. Environmentalists filled several rows of the courtroom, an ornate space with high ceilings and chandeliers, and screamed "shame" when they felt ignored.
Well-known mountaintop removal foes Bo Webb and Maria Gunnoe told lawmakers about the recent scientific studies showing the dangers of the practice. And they stressed the ongoing nature of OSM's rulemaking.
"There is no rewrite," Webb said. "What we are hearing this morning is a lot of speculation."
Webb also called mountaintop removal an "insane method of mining." He added, "I'm beginning to wonder if Congress has any decency left."
"We are poisoning our water and our air for electricity," Gunnoe said. "Jobs in surface mining are dependent on blowing up the next mountain and burying the next stream. When will we say enough is enough?"
And as critics assailed OSM for doing too much to regulate coal mining, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, suggested the agency was falling short of its mission. In a letter released around the time of the hearing, Markey asked OSM Director Joseph Pizarchik for information on actions to address pollution and mountaintop-removal mining.
"The failure of OSM to address these troublesome programmatic issues is particularly alarming," Markey wrote, "given recent scientific studies that have documented the scale of the impacts to air and water quality, and the link between these impacts and human health problems throughout Appalachia."
But Republican lawmakers vowed to continue pushing their efforts to stop OSM from finalizing the new rules.