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OSM study projects job losses, environmental benefits

Read the study: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Department of Interior study of potential new restrictions on surface coal mining outlines projected production shifts and job losses as well as estimated environmental benefits of tougher regulations, according to a draft report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Yearly Appalachian coal production would drop by 13 percent over the next decade, but annual impacts to streams and the land would be cut by 20 percent, under Interior's preferred version of a new stream protection rule outlined in the draft report.

Nationwide coal production would increase slightly, but roughly 7,000 mining jobs would disappear -- mostly in the Appalachian coalfields -- if the Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's preferred changes were adopted, according to the report.

The Obama administration has tried to distance itself from the draft study since a version of it was leaked and The Associated Press last week reported on the potential job losses, but not other aspects of the document.

"The current draft of the EIS isn't OSM's and doesn't reflect our input or reviews," Peter Mali, a spokesman for OSM, said Wednesday. "The document is a very early working draft. We have not adopted the numbers that are in the draft or any other aspects of the draft."

OSM Director Joe Pizarchik refused requests for an interview, but issued a letter to newspaper editors and publishers that said the initial media coverage "misrepresents the facts."

"As required by law, OSM will consider in the [study] a reasonable range of alternatives, which may vary from not revising the rule at all, to alternatives that may greatly restrict the way that surface coal mining is conducted," the letter said. "The alternative cited in the article is one of several being considered, and the potential job impacts cited in the article relate to only one of the options that the draft [study] will evaluate."

Last week's leak occurred as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under fire for its crackdown on Clean Water Act permits for mining operations and as Republicans in the U.S. House have promised to put increased pressure on EPA over its efforts to more strictly regulate mining and institute limits on coal's greenhouse gas emissions.

On Tuesday, the Gazette obtained a copy of the draft study through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection. OSM had provided DEP and mining regulators in other states with the draft to allow state agencies early input prior to a formal public comment period.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency had agreed to an OSM demand not to disclose the study, but realized even at the time that the documents would probably be subject to the state's public records law. Huffman and other state regulators are also upset with not only the OSM regulatory proposal, but with being given limited time to review lengthy documents before providing federal officials with formal comments.

OSM is working on the study as part of its plan to reverse the Bush administration's elimination of the stream "buffer zone" rule, a regulation that, if enforced, could have outlawed any mining activities within 100 feet of streams. Obama administration officials have said they want to take a "more holistic approach" to limiting mining's impacts on water quality and quantity in coalfields across the country.

In the draft report, OSM outlines potential alternatives that range from doing nothing differently to banning all valley fills and prohibiting mine operators from obtaining variances to the general "approximate original contour," or AOC, reclamation rule.

The OSM "preferred alternative" would allow valley fills, but require mine operators to take steps to minimize the burial of streams. It would also place new restrictions on the use of AOC variances.

Under this alternative, the study projects nationwide coal production would increase slightly, as western mining in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota make up for reductions in Appalachia. Total direct Appalachian coal jobs would decline from nearly 23,000 to just more than 15,000, according to the draft study.

At the same time, annual miles of streams buried by valley fills in Appalachia would drop from 71 to 57 miles. Annual acreage impacted by mining would drop from 33,000 to 26,000 in the region.

The study appears to project that the rule and its impacts would be phased in over a 10- to 12-year period.

But it also does not appear to consider other factors -- such as competition from other coal-producing areas and the mining out of the region's best and easiest-to-reach coal seams -- that already have most experts projecting a decline in Central Appalachian coal over the next 10 to 20 years.

The draft study does not provide many details about how OSM calculated its estimated impacts, but says the figures were put together in part by a panel of experts from all sides with knowledge of the industry.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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