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House subcommittee meets in Charleston; speakers slam coal regs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Republicans brought their fight against Obama administration environmental regulations to West Virginia Monday, with a subcommittee hearing aimed at criticizing efforts to rewrite a rule meant to protect streams from surface mining damage.

 

A House Natural Resources subcommittee heard from a long list of coal lobbyists, local political leaders, and state regulatory officials who are opposed to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's work to redraft its stream "buffer zone" rule.

Tom Clarke, mining director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, called the OSM project a "debacle" and complained it amounted to "social engineering" that would "radically alter the economy of the Appalachian region."

Clarke joined state mining regulators from Virginia and Wyoming in criticizing the process the Obama administration has used to try to reverse the Bush administration's elimination of the rule that -- if enforced -- would prohibit mining within 100 feet of many streams.

Lobbyists from the West Virginia and Ohio coal associations, along with an official from CONSOL Energy and a local United Mine Workers official, also appeared at the field hearing, held at the Kanawha County courthouse in Charleston, to criticize the OSM move.

"The Obama administration and its allies have declared a de facto war on the coal industry," said Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association. "Our industry is facing an unprecedented onslaught of new regulations that are, simply put, designed to eliminate the American coal industry."

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, testified at the hearing. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., both made statements. Tomblin, Manchin and Capito all left without listening to any of the testimony.

Only two of the 15 Republican members of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources attended the hearing. None of the panel's 11 Democrats attended.

Committee Democrats did manage to force the GOP to expand the original panel of witnesses to include anti-mountaintop removal activists Bo Webb and Maria Gunnoe. Both Webb and Gunnoe called for all mountaintop removal to end.

"This hearing is about the companies' bottom lines and not about jobs for poor people," Gunnoe said. "West Virginians will never truly be free until this madness is stopped."

And the Natural Resources Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, issued a letter to OSM Director Joe Pizarchik, saying he was concerned the agency has "relied on outdated and inadequate regulations" that don't prevent damage to the environment or to public health in coalfield communities.

No one from OSM was invited to appear at the hearing, which mostly repeated complaints that GOP lawmakers and the industry made during an April meeting of the same House subcommittee.

Industry supporters say that OSM, with its potential buffer zone rewrite, is mirroring the efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where a crackdown on mountaintop removal has slowed new mining permit approvals and brought repeated attacks from coal companies and coalfield political leaders.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, environmental groups had already sued OSM over the Bush buffer zone changes. The Bush OSM eliminated the 100-foot buffer around streams, a requirement that had never been enforced, but also added language meant to reduce the size of valley fill waste piles that have buried hundreds of miles of streams across Appalachia.

OSM settled that litigation by agreeing to rewrite the rule. OSM missed its initial deadline of February 2011. Agency officials say they are working on a more "holistic approach" to protecting streams and expect to release a draft rule next spring.

Earlier this year, portions of an early draft of an OSM study of its rule were leaked to the press, prompting media accounts that the proposal could cost about 7,000 mining jobs nationwide. Those initial accounts, though, did not also detail potential environmental benefits or discuss major Central Appalachian coal production declines that are expected regardless of what sort of rule OSM issues.

OSM has fired the original study contractor, bringing allegations from industry supporters that agency officials wanted to cover up job-loss projections they didn't like.

"This administration's commitment to transparency stops with Appalachia," said Jason Bostic, a vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

CONSOL Vice President Katharine Fredriksen said OSM has also not made clear that the rule changes under consideration would also impact underground mining, and could make many of her company's large longwall operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia unprofitable.

But Webb, who lives downhill from a mountaintop removal operation in Raleigh County, said industry officials and their political supporters are ignoring the mounting peer-reviewed science showing high levels of birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses among residents near large-scale surface mining operations.

"We are witnessing health effects from the fallout of this insane form of mining," Webb told the committee. "Not one of these [studies] has been refuted. Protecting our water is far more important than money, power and politics."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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