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EPA Move Strikes Angry Note Among Coal-Friendly Dems


A mountaintop mine in West Virginia (NRDC photo)

In the heart of coal country, a White House stab at environmental protection has struck an angry note with the powerful lawmakers of West Virginia.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week threatened to revoke the permit for the largest mountaintop removal mine in all of Appalachia, citing the harmful effects the project would have on local water quality. It marks the first time since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 that the EPA has used its CWA authority to examine the environmental impacts of an existing coal-mining permit.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The move is being cheered by environmentalists and human rights groups, who have long-argued that mountaintop removal — the blasting away of mountain peaks to get at the coal inside — comes at the too-high price of decimating local streams and communities. But the reaction from West Virginia Democrats — a powerful bunch — has been something different entirely.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller called the administration’s decision a “wrong and unfair” punishment of mining companies. “When businesses make good faith efforts and fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations,” he said in a statement, “they must have the confidence that the commitments made by the government will be honored.”

Another West Virginia Democrat, Gov. Joe Manchin, also expressed outrage, calling EPA’s decision “a prime example of how the federal government is not working for the people.”

“This federal bureaucracy is misleading, and is adding excessive red tape that is affecting people’s livelihoods,” Manchin said in his own statement. “Government should be a facilitator and partner, not a hindrance to Americans working to obtain the American Dream.”

The comments highlight a dilemma facing President Obama since he took office in February. Mountaintop removal has become popular in Appalachia because the method slashes labor costs and curbs the need to truck mining waste off-site for dumping. But the method has also ravaged adjacent communities by poisoning streams, contaminating air, killing wildlife and flooding homes.

On the one hand, Obama wants to honor campaign vows to rein in mountaintop mining in favor of less intrusive methods. On the other, he doesn’t want the effort to increase energy prices or unemployment in the midst of an economic downturn. The National Mining Association estimates that mountaintop operations directly employ 14,000 people in the Appalachian states. Adding to concerns, coal generates more than half the nation’s electricity, leaving countless businesses and consumers with an interest in keeping it cheap.

That the coal industry is well-heeled — and West Virginia’s lawmakers well-entrenched — has only complicated the saga.

Cindy Rank, who chairs the mining committee at the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said the politically charged search for a balance between environmental protection and economic activity is one the state has faced for decades — with sometimes ugly results. “It can get very nasty,” Rank said. “It verges on violence. There’s a lot of intimidation involved.”

The administration has shown some willingness to gamble. Last month, for example, the EPA announced that 79 pending applications for mountaintop operations will be stalled while their effects on water systems are further reviewed. And last week the agency took its boldest step of the year, threatening to revoke an existing CWA permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Southern West Virginia if the operation doesn’t take further strides to blunt its impact on surrounding waterways. That mine, approved in 2007, is slated to encompass nearly 2,300 acres and bury more than seven miles of mountain streams. EPA has “very serious concerns regarding the scale and extent of significant environmental and water quality impacts,” EPA regional administrator William E. Early wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last Friday. “The collective science strongly suggests that projects similar to the Spruce No. 1 are associated with impairment of downstream aquatic life use.”

The Clean Water Act authorizes the Army Corps to issue mining fill permits, but it also empowers the EPA to suspend existing permits if the agency has reason to believe that a project “presents an imminent danger of irreparable harm” to community water supplies or wildlife.

EPA is asking the Corps to submit “any additional information … to demonstrate that no unacceptable adverse effects would occur from this project.” The implication is clear: if no such evidence surfaces, the EPA will revoke the fill permit, effectively shutting down the largest mountaintop removal site in the state’s history.

The EPA was quick to stipulate that the Spruce No. 1 Mine is a isolated case that “represents an unusual set of circumstances we do not expect to be repeated again.”

But that statement has done little to alleviate the concerns of the mining lobby, which wants a clearer sense of how EPA arrived at its decision. “What are those unusual circumstances?” asked Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. “We don’t know. We don’t know what the rationale is for that process.”

The owner of the Spruce Mine, St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc., declined to comment for this story. But in a statement issued Friday, the company called the Spruce project “the most carefully scrutinized and fully considered mine permit in West Virginia’s history.” Arch also decried the absence of “a stable and predictable regulatory climate” — a message often heard from coal industry defenders, including Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Last week, Rahall pressed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on the issue, relaying the industry’s concern that “there are no clear rules of the game by which to seek mining permits.” Rahall’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the Spruce Mine episode.

Environmentalists, though they’re applauding the EPA’s recent actions, are quick to concede that the criticism from powerful Democrats in and out of Congress makes the administration’s job protecting the Appalachians that much more difficult.

“It makes the situation uncomfortable for the administration,” said Ed Hopkins, director of Sierra Club’s environmental quality program. “At some point, pressure from West Virginia politicians may impede the administration’s efforts.”

Vivian Stockman, project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, echoed that message. “It certainly does bring back the idea of politics trying to trump science,” she said, referring to the Bush era when environmentalists felt the EPA often shunned the environment for political gain. “They [EPA officials] are getting a lot of pressure from political big-wigs, which makes it pretty tough for us to be heard down here.”

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