CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite complaints about the Obama administration's "war on coal," employment in the Appalachian mining industry is at a 14-year high, according to new government data and congressional testimony.
Congressional allies of the coal industry this week intensified their attack on the administration, with three hearings to collect testimony critical of water protection rules and a proposed effort to streamline the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Nationwide, though, the total number of coal jobs is at its highest level since 1996, with 90,354 jobs in 2011, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data.
In Appalachia, the 59,059 jobs reported were the most since 1997, according to the MSHA data. In West Virginia, coal employment reached its highest level since 1992, with 23,353 jobs, the data shows.
Matt Wasson, director of programs for the group Appalachian Voices, said his review of the MSHA data shows the number of coal jobs in the region has increased by 10 percent since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining in June 2009.
"In other words, the idea of a 'permitorium' on coal mine permitting that House Republicans are pushing out is completely and demonstrably false," Wasson said Friday. "The hysterical reaction of coal companies to any and all regulations to protect the safety of workers and communities near their mines is about profits, not jobs."
This week, House Republicans held two hearings aimed at criticizing the OSM, and Senate Democrats held a separate hearing to question the Interior Department's proposal to merge some OSM administrative and mine reclamation functions with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
"The Obama administration has openly sought ways to get rid of the coal industry," said Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican who recently has led the GOP charge against Obama's coal policies.
Among other things, Johnson argued this week that the proposed OSM-BLM merger -- which most observers worry could weaken federal strip-mine enforcement -- "is yet another action by the Obama administration in its ongoing war on American coal."
During a Friday hearing, two former OSM subcontractors -- a coal industry consultant and a longtime industry lawyer -- alleged that agency officials tried to get them to soften the potential job losses projected in a study of the OSM's proposal to rewrite the federal stream "buffer zone" rule.
J. Steven Gardner, the industry consultant, testified that he and a team of outside subcontractors working on the study "unanimously refused to use a 'fabricated' baseline scenario to soften the production loss numbers," Gardner stated in written testimony.
Gardner and the other witness, lawyer Joseph Zaluski, disputed previous testimony in which OSM Director Joe Pizarchik tried to distance agency officials from the job and production analysis.
"We met with them constantly," Zaluski said. "They approved methodologies, especially with regard to production shifts."
Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of science linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for nearby residents. However, President Obama himself blocked the EPA from implementing tougher new smog standards that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants, and advocates for action on global warming have criticized Obama for doing little on that issue.