Coal Tattoo

Hobet 45 deal: Mountaintop removal questions for all

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

We’ve got a much more detailed story on the Gazette Web site now about the Hobet 45 permit deal announced today by the Obama administration.  But the agreement raises lots of questions — enough to go around and for all sides of the mountaintop removal issue.

First, for environmental groups: Will they file some sort of legal challenge to try to derail this agreement? Doing so would certainly set up a big battle with the United Mine Workers union.

This joint statement issued by various citizen organizations had some harsh words for EPA.

For example, Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy said, “Allowing this newest addition to the over 25 square miles of devastation at the Hobet complex to proceed makes one seriously question if EPA is truly interested in making a real difference.”  And Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, said:

The Obama administration rings in the new year by allowing coal companies to bury more miles of streams. There is no excuse for approving this permit when the science is clear that mountaintop removal coal mining permanently destroys streams. The administration claims to be making progress on mountaintop removal, but in reality they are still following the flawed policies put in place by the Bush administration. It is time for them to make a commitment to ending this abominable practice.

Clearly, environmental groups are hoping that, in the words of Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, “this is the last destructive permit approved that will allow the coal industry to continue to blast our homes and pollute our streams.”

That leads us to the United Mine Workers of America union and its president, my friend Cecil Roberts. Over the years, Roberts has bounced between being tired of compromise with environmental groups to embracing the idea that eliminating mountaintop removal might be an acceptable long-term strategy for Southern West Virginia. Will the UMWA ever return to that discussion, and think about a transition away from huge strip mines to more underground mining, as some environmental groups have advocated?

The UMW’s engagement on mountaintop removal understandably fluctuates, depending on whether a permit where its members work is delayed to the point that layoffs are threatened. At one point, the union hired an engineer to try to help find a solution to the stalled Spruce Mine, but that’s when it was proposed as a union operation.  The union dodges around questions about the damage to coalfield communities and the environment, saying its members don’t design mine plans and that all companies should have to comply with government regulations on mining and reclamation.

But take a look at the EPA’s deal on Hobet 45.  It apparently preserves all of the union’s jobs, allows Patriot Coal to get at 91 percent of the coal it originally hoped to mine — but at the same time, cuts the length of stream to be buried by mining waste in half. Will the UMWA now say publicly what everyone else knows: That permits have been issued — and continue to be issued — that don’t minimize the environmental harm? Will the UMWA come to the defense of the Obama EPA, and say that if the coal industry and the agencies that regulate it would truly reduce the impacts it would help avoid citizen legal actions that can block permits and cost miners their jobs?

And what about the Corps of Engineers? Agency officials there have defended their permitting of mountaintop removal, but doesn’t this Hobet 45 deal show clearly that they haven’t done their job of forcing mine operators to avoid stream impacts where possible and minimize them if avoidance won’t work? What steps will the Corps take now to include the kind of review that EPA did of Hobet 45 in its own permit process?

For the coal industry, the question now is will  mine operators do as Sen. Robert C. Byrd suggested and “embrace the future,” by trying to do what Patriot Coal did at its Hobet 45 permit — work to come up with better mining plans that reduce impacts, rather than just complaining about Obama’s EPA?

Over at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,  Secretary Randy Huffman would like to see EPA back off and let WVDEP regulate the state’s coal industry. What measures will Huffman announce by which his agency would do what EPA did in this instance? Why does WVDEP issue a SMCRA permit for a mine like this, only to sit back and watch EPA push for a better permit with fewer impacts?

And the Obama EPA (and the White House for that matter) … The administration has announced it will take unprecedented steps to reduce the impacts of surface coal mining in Appalachia, but EPA and other agencies have not made clear what their plan really is for doing this.  Industry rightly objects that it’s not sure what the rules are anymore, and when the Obama agencies do announce some regulatory plan, it’s just to take more public comment — and put off any really tough decisions until later.

More to the point: Is reducing the streams buried by Hobet 45 from more than 6 miles to just more than 3 miles enough? And why did EPA agree to a monitoring plan for water quality at this operation that would not stop mining if violations occur, and instead allow more of the same kind of “mitigation” that most scientists say doesn’t work?

Finally, for West Virginia’s elected officials and political leaders: Gov. Manchin, Sen. Rockefeller and Rep. Rahall were pretty much duped by CONSOL Energy, when it announced it was going to lay off nearly 500 miners in Clay County because of “repeated assault from nuisance lawsuits and appeals of environmental regulations.”

It turned out CONSOL’s Fola subsidiary had already buried the streams at this operation, and could therefore easily get Judge Chambers to lift his injunction, but that Fola was having all sort of other problems that were significant factors in the potential for a shutdown. Will our elected officials start holding coal operators more accountable, not run screaming to the nearest microphone when layoffs are threatened, and instead support regulators as they push industry to reduce impacts from mining?

Not surprisingly, Sen. Byrd had more words of wisdom today for his fellow West Virginians:

Coal is critical to helping America meet its energy needs. I continue to believe that civil and candid discussions about the future of coal, as evidenced by the progress with these mining permits, can serve the long-term interests of coal miners and our state.

There is an achievable balance between environmental concerns and the necessary mining of coal as part of our energy portfolio.  Striving for that balance, without rancor, must be our goal.