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Mountaintop removal exports on the rise

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

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As U.S. coal demand continues to drop, the share of mountaintop removal-produced coal that is exported overseas is on the rise, according to a report issued by Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Exports still account for a relatively small percentage of U.S. and Appalachian coal markets, about 12 percent of all coal nationally and 11 percent of surface-mined coal in the region. But nationally the amount of coal shipped to foreign countries has doubled since 2009, to 107 million tons last year.

Roughly three-quarters of the coal exported from the U.S. comes from Appalachia, with West Virginia leading regional states in exports.

In the debate over tougher regulation of strip mining and power plant air pollution, coal industry public relations campaigns have argued mining operators "keep the lights on," and that coal production is critical to national security.

Environmental groups have countered that exports are greatly increasing as the U.S. coal market tightens.

Democratic staff for the House Natural Resources Committee analyzed coal production data reported by the industry to government agencies, at least in part in an effort to respond to the industry's campaigns.

They found that 97 large-scale surface mines in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania shipped coal overseas in 2011. Those mines, representing 15 percent of all surface mines in the region, accounted for about 24 percent of the export coal from those states.

Overall, coal exports from those four states nearly doubled between 2009 and 2011, to 13.2 million tons.

Twenty-five of the mines examined exported more than half of their 2011 production. Six mines exported nine out of every 10 tons of coal they produced, the report said.

"American families are being subjected to coal mine pollution and damage, just so exports to China and other foreign nations can increase," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and ranking minority member of the committee. "The coal may be shipped to foreign markets, but the diseases, the destroyed mountains and the environmental ruin from these destructive practices are staying right here in America."

Some scientists and activists are especially concerned that the growing export market could reverse reductions in power plant greenhouse gas emissions achieved as U.S. utilities switch to low-priced natural gas.

The Democratic staff report's release was timed to coincide with another in a series of hearings the Republican committee leadership has staged to criticize the Obama administration's work to rewrite a federal Office of Surface Mining "buffer zone" rule intended to protect streams from mining damage.

Republican committee leaders and several industry consultants hired by OSM to work on the study have alleged agency officials wanted to rewrite a draft of the document to downplay potential job losses.

During Thursday's hearing, GOP committee members peppered OSM Director Joe Pizarchik with questions about the study, and the administration's refusal to release some information about its still-unfinished proposal. But lawmakers repeatedly interrupted Pizarchik or talked over him when he tried to answer their questions.

"There is no pending proposed rule, and there is no completed environmental impact statement that evaluated a proposed rule and alternatives," Pizarchik said in his prepared testimony. "The deliberative process is ongoing."

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


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