An ongoing cultural battle between coal mining and environmental groups played out in a Senate hearing Wednesday over an Obama administration proposal to mitigate the impacts of coal mining activity on streams.
The hearing, in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, afforded an opportunity for mining interests and their mostly Republican supporters to hammer administration officials over the Stream Protection Rule, though the proposed rule itself isn’t to blame for coal’s troubles.
In return, Democrats who support environmental groups got a chance to hit back using the recent water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., though the lead-tainted water there was not the result of coal mining.
Kentucky attorney Clay Larkin, testifying on behalf of theKentucky Coal Association, a group that represent 90 percent of the coal mined in the state, said the proposed rule could cost coal companies thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue.
Central Appalachian coal has been hit especially hard in the past several years with declining prices, lower electricity demand and the availability of cheaper natural gas. The proposed regulation, Larkin said, would do even more damage to coal production.
“The ‘Stream Protection Rule’ is a rule in search of a problem,” he said, adding that the Obama administration should withdraw it and start over after a seven-year process.
Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices, a group based in Boone, N.C., that opposes a type of surface mining known as mountaintop removal, testified that “existing rules are failing to prevent serious and unmitigated environmental harm from occurring.”
Although the group thinks the new rule doesn’t go far enough, Wasson said, his group supports it because it updates 30-year-old regulations based on new science about the impact of mine contaminants in waterways.
“Appalachian Voices believes the proposed rule represents, at best, two steps forward and one step back,” he testified.
Coal production had always been a mainstay industry in Appalachia, but it has fallen on hard times. Supporters of the industry blame increasing federal regulation for the decline, though economic factors are behind it as well.
But many in the region are also concerned about the environmental impact mining activity has caused, especially mountaintop removal, where debris often ends up in streams.
The 264-page rule wouldn’t ban any mining technique, but it would require that mining companies protect and restore streams in a manner that water quality isn’t degraded.
But lawmakers from coal-producing states questioned whether the government’s rule would curtail more than just one type of surface mining in Appalachia, echoing industry groups that have said the rule would affect underground mines as well.
A practice called longwall underground mining has become common in regions such as western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Coal mining in those regions has fared better in recent years than Central Appalachia because the coal is more economical to mine.
Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and a native of the western Pennsylvania coalfield, said the concern about underground mines was a misperception. The rule is intended to prevent the destruction of streams on the surface above such mines, he said, not to stop underground mining.
“Most of the underground mining will be able to continue,” Pizarchik said.
Larkin, said, however, that the rule could make it “impossible” to permit underground mines.
“As I read this rule,” he said, “it will have an impact on surface and underground mining.”
The Senate hearing laid no markers on action by Congress or the White House. The proposed rule was published last July, and it isn’t clear whether the Obama administration can implement it in the year it has left.
The House of Representatives passed a bill last month to block the rule’s implementation, but the Senate has yet to even schedule a committee vote on its version in a busy election year.
- On February 5, 2016