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Coal Country Dems to White House: Get Your Act Together

The collision between environmental protection and coal extraction is nothing new to the Appalachian states, which are home to some of the largest coal deposits in the world. But in the middle of an unemployment crisis — and with a new administration showing signs of cracking down harshly on the destructive practice of mountaintop removal — that conflict has only intensified. And yesterday, a group of West Virginia lawmakers called on the Obama administration to meet with them to clarify what the rules on mountaintop mining will be, The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports.

In a private gathering adjacent the governor’s mansion in Charleston, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), Rep. Nick Rahall (D), Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Gov. Joe Manchin (D) met with industry leaders regarding the mixed signals coming from the Environmental Protection Agency on mountaintop removal, a method of mining in which the tops of mountains are blasted away and the debris pushed into nearby streams.

And here’s a hint: the lawmakers are none too happy with the EPA’s actions so far. From the Gazette:

Rockefeller said the White House meeting doesn’t have to involve President Obama, but must be with someone who can provide “good, hard information” about exactly what new environmental constraints EPA wants to place on mountaintop removal.

Rahall said coal executives at Tuesday’s meeting expressed frustration with EPA permit reviews, delays in permit decisions and general confusion about what — if any — new standards EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is imposing on Clean Water Act permits for strip mines.

“We need to know what the rules of the game are,” Rahall said. “We need clarity. We need EPA to get its act together.”

The meeting was originally scheduled to be public, Ward reports, but was moved to a private tent at the last minute. Organizers might have feared the arrival of anti-mountaintop removal activists, though no protesters showed up, Ward notes.

Both sides have reason to feel anxious. Earlier this year, the EPA approved dozens of new mountaintop mining permits, causing some alarm among environmentalists that the Obama administration was poised to follow in the footsteps of the hands-off Bush White House on the issue. More recently, however, the EPA announced that it was withholding 79 pending applications for new mountaintop removal projects in order to assess their impact on local waterways. Then last month the agency took an even bolder step, threatening to revoke the permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop mine in West Virginia, unless the owner changed the design to protect local streams. It marked the first time since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act that the EPA had invoked its CWA authority to halt an existing coal mining permit.

Calls to Capitol Hill today weren’t returned. (Today, after all, is Veterans Day, and many offices are vacant.) But the EPA said last month that other existing mountaintop operations can breathe easy — the agency isn’t likely to target them as it did the Spruce project.

EPA does not expect to review additional mining projects in circumstances where the [Army] Corps has already issued a permit. Spruce is a very large mine, with correspondingly significant environmental and water quality impacts.

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