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Tomblin warns EPA of 'unreasonable' pollution rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is warning the Obama administration again of "unreasonable" pollution rules, offering Monday to help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency craft greenhouse gas emissions standards that would be more workable for the coal industry.

Tomblin's statements were announced in a press release in which the governor's office said Tomblin had met with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to update the EPA on remediation and "continued recovery" from last month's Elk River chemical spill.

"Since January 9, we have been working day-in, day-out to ensure public health and safety for the 300,000 West Virginians affected by the Elk River chemical spill," Tomblin said in the release. "This event is not only a significant public health issue, but also an environmental and economic development issue."

In the press release, the governor's office said during the meeting with McCarthy, Tomblin also "shared recommendations for establishing carbon dioxide emissions guidelines for existing power plants."

Tomblin had on Friday sent McCarthy a letter about carbon dioxide emissions limits for existing power plants that the EPA is under orders from President Obama to issue by June.

"Environmental stewardship is fundamental to the everyday lives of West Virginians," Tomblin said in the letter. "We enjoy hunting, fishing, and the beautiful views of our mountains and valleys.

"West Virginians also understand the importance of a hard day's work, but up until this point, I believe that EPA has not sufficiently considered the real life adverse consequences of sweeping greenhouse gas regulations," the governor's letter said.

"Regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants will have profound and far-reaching effects on West Virginia and many other areas," Tomblin wrote. "An unreasonable regulatory structure could destabilize our once-reliable electric power grid, increase energy costs to vulnerable taxpayers, further burden industrial employers, and devastate coal-mining families and communities."

The governor offered to "work with EPA in developing reasonable standards that balance the environment and economic opportunity," and provided McCarthy with a 17-page document called, "West Virginia's Principles to Consider in Establishing Carbon Dioxide Emissions Guidelines for Existing Power Plants."

In the document, the state Department of Environmental Protection advocates giving state regulatory agencies "maximum flexibility" and extended compliance deadlines for coming up with plans to meet EPA's eventual rules for greenhouse emissions from existing power plants.

The document goes into detail about the coal industry's economic impact on West Virginia, but says little about the threat climate change presents to society, and does not explicitly support the idea that action on the issue is needed.

"Put simply, if the wrong programs are put into place, the results could be devastating to the state economy and cascade West Virginia into a severe recession from which it may never recover," the DEP document says.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the agency's memo is meant to offer a change from the common rhetoric from West Virginia officials denying that climate change is happening, that humans are the cause, or that emissions reductions are needed.

"We're trying to position ourselves to work with EPA on how this will be done, rather than continuing to argue that it shouldn't be done," Huffman said Monday. "It's about getting a seat at the table."

John Benedict, director of the DEP Division of Air Quality, said his staff has not tried to put together a proposal for exactly how West Virginia could work to reduce its greenhouse emissions.

"Until we see what EPA comes up with, we can't put together any kind of plan," Benedict said. "We need a target."

Benedict said the DEP has not tried to determine by what amounts coal-fired power plant emissions should be reduced to help slow or eventually halt climate change.

"I don't think we would have the expertise to do that," Benedict said. "That is something that is debated on a world stage. I have to leave it up to the scientists to decide."

Last year, Tomblin joined with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to file a "friend of the court" brief in support of efforts by Texas and 11 other states that were urging the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a 2007 ruling that found greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act and must be regulated by EPA.

On Jan. 8 -- the day before the Elk River chemical spill -- Tomblin said in his State of the State address he would "never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal." But the governor added, "We should remind ourselves a challenge doesn't always lead to confrontation."

In recent weeks, Tomblin's administration has been under fire for its handling of the chemical spill, and the governor has repeatedly rejected any suggestion the incident -- which involved a spill of 10,000 gallons of a chemical used at coal preparation plants -- was connected in any way to the mining industry.

The governor proposed legislation to create new permitting and inspection requirements for above-ground chemical storage tanks like the one that leaked at a Freedom Industries facility just 1.5 miles upstream from the regional water intake on the Elk River. The governor's bill included a long list of exemptions similar to one privately proposed by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, but the DEP has since urged lawmakers to tighten those exemptions and strengthen the bill.

Two weeks ago, lawyers for the Tomblin administration joined the National Mining Association in urging a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling that threw out parts of an EPA crackdown on water pollution from mountaintop removal mining operations.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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