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Coal Country Republicans Charge EPA With ‘Total War on Coal’

Following last month’s deadly underground mine explosion in West Virginia, the recent controversy surrounding surface mining has been largely (if temporarily) forgotten — at least in Washington. But today, two House Republicans from Appalachia’s coal fields revisited the issue, ripping the Environmental Protection Agency for installing strict new guidelines designed to protect mountain streams from the destructive practice known as mountaintop removal.

In other words, the lawmakers are blasting the Environmental Protection Agency for trying to protect the environment.

“While the EPA conducts an unnecessary re-examination of the mining permitting process under the guise of environmental stewardship, the troubling reality is that the EPA’s unsolicited policy changes are aimed solely at the coal industry and more specifically, Appalachian coal,” Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) wrote Monday in an op-ed in Roll Call.

Unilaterally implementing some of the most sweeping regulatory changes in recent history, the EPA is supplanting well-established, Congressionally justified water quality programs in six Appalachian states and running roughshod over commonly agreed upon principles and practices.

It’s tough to know how the lawmakers would define “recent history” here, but evidently they don’t wish to go back too far. Not to 2002, for example, when the Bush administration unilaterally reclassified mining “waste” as mining “fill,” thereby allowing companies to fill streams more easily. And not to 2008, when the Bush White House gutted a 25-year-old rule prohibiting the disposal of mining debris within 100 feet of streams.

Here’s how The Washington Post described the 2002 change:

The “fill rule,” as the May 2002 rule change is now known, is a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences.

And last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pointed out the reasoning behind the 2008 “stream-buffer-zone” change when he noted that it “allows coal mine operators to dump mountaintop fill into streambeds if it’s found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option.”

But company expense and convenience, Salazar said in proposing to abandon Bush’s rule, shouldn’t be the only considerations when issuing permits.

We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports.

Whether they can succeed in the face of industry opposition — opposition evidenced by today’s Rogers-Capitol op-ed — is another question.

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