Coal Tattoo


Well, Sen. James Inhofe’s crusade to be a one-man truth squad at the international climate talks in Copenhagen went so well for him (a reporter from Der Spiegel told him “You’re ridiculous” when Inhofe tried to spin his views that global warming science is a hoax), that the Oklahoma Republican is now going to enter the debate over mountaintop removal coal mining.

Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, this morning issued a report that purports to show, according to a press release, that the Obama administration’s review of mountaintop removal permits is “killing jobs, threatening energy security.” According to Inhofe:

Since President Obama took office, the Obama administration has taken several actions to obstruct, delay and ultimately halt surface coal mining operations in Appalachia. Unfortunately, such action by the Obama administration will destroy jobs in the Appalachian region and threaten our nation’s energy security.

The report focuses on EPA’s review — and threatened veto — of the Clean Water Act permit issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce No. 1 Mine, the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history.

But the report ignores some major developments in the last few weeks. Perhaps that’s because it’s based in large part on a response from West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman to questions posed by Inhofe several months ago. It’s also interesting to note that the Inhofe report mirrors arguments Arch Coal Inc. has made against EPA’s efforts to force the company to reduce the impacts of this huge mining proposal.


Photo by Paul Corbit Brown

Among the significant developments — all pointing the coal industry toward “embracing the future” — ignored by Inhofe’s report:

— The bombshell paper in the respected journal Science, which found that mountaintop removal’s impacts are “pervasive and irreversible,” that current reclamation techniques simply don’t work, and that new permits should be halted until improved mitigation is shown to fix the damage.

— EPA’s deal with Patriot Coal and the Corps to allow issuance of the Hobet 45 mountaintop removal permit, a settlement that allows Patriot to get at 91 percent of the coal it wanted to produce, but cuts the stream impacts from mining in half — all a result of EPA stepping in and doing what WVDEP and the Corps did not: Requiring the company to find alternatives to burying streams and minimize its environmental damage.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpg— WVDEP’s announcement that it was stopping review of new surface mining permits with valley fills until it can come up with better guidance to force companies to reduce downstream water quality damage from those fills, and the state’s recognition that impacts need to be reduced and that mining permits are “unlikely to ever be the same.”

— Kentucky’s announcement that it would also be getting tough on valley fills, with a new policy  agreed to by the state, industry and environmental groups.

So what does the report say? Well, be sure to read it yourself here (including the part where it refers to West Virginia Gov. Jon Manchin III) But in short, its conclusions are that EPA, in reviewing the Spruce Mine permit:

— Failed to make its decision in a transparent manner;

— Moved forward without input or consultation from state officials; and

— Presented no new information or analysis to justify its change in position.

While it’s true that the Spruce Mine has been undergoing regulatory review for more than a decade, and has been studied more than any other surface mine ever, it’s also worth recalling what the impacts from the Spruce Mine would still be, as outlined by EPA just last week:

The Spruce No. 1 mine is one of the largest mountaintop removal mines ever proposed in the Appalachian coalfields and would clear more than 2,200 acres of forestlands, bury more than seven miles of headwater streams, and further contaminate downstream waters already heavily impacted by previous mining activities. EPA is concerned that the Spruce No. 1 mine may —

– Bury 7.5 miles of healthy headwater streams under 6 valley fills;
— Contaminate downstream surface waters with pollutants from the mine including selenium, conductivity, iron, and aluminum – pollutants that would continue to drain into streams long after the mine is closed;
— Cause additional harm to the Little Coal River watershed already significantly impacted by previous mining activities – 73 percent of streams are already impaired by mining;
— Deforest 2,200 acres of mature, productive forestlands; and
Impact human health by contributing to water quality degradation and contaminating fish and wildlife.

If you read Randy Huffman’s letter to Inhofe closely, there’s a troubling internal inconsistency.

On the one hand, everybody wants to argue that EPA isn’t bringing any new analysis or data to the table here. Referring to EPA’s Oct. 16, 2009, letter to the Corps (the one in which EPA indicated it might veto the permit), Huffman wrote:

… This letter does not raise any issue which has not been thoroughly considered in the eleven plus years this permit has been under consideration.

At the same time, there’s this argument that EPA’s move against the Spruce permit is a “stark change in regulatory direction,”  that EPA has suddenly started raising questions about this mine and its impacts.

Which is it? Is this something new, or is EPA raising the same old issues?

As a matter of fact, as I’ve written before, EPA consistently raised concerns about this permit — both in the early stages in the late 1990s, before it was blocked by then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II — and more recently, before the Corps approved the mine in January 2007. To quote from my previous story:

During the comment period on the current Spruce Mine permit, in June 2006, the EPA issued a letter that ranked the proposal as “EC-2,” or “Environmental Concerns and Insufficient Information.”

The EPA praised the company and the corps for reducing the mine’s impacts, but said the permit still did not contain adequate mitigation for water-quality damage, sufficient study of cumulative impacts or a detailed review of potential environmental justice effects of the operation.

“We have remaining environmental concerns based on the uncertainty of the mitigation proposals and as yet incomplete cumulative impact assessment and management plans for the Little Coal River watershed,” wrote then-EPA regional administrator Donald Welsh.

There’s a lot of bluster in Sen. Inhofe’s report and press release, with quotes like this:

The case of the Mingo Logan Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia exemplifies the administration’s opposition to coal mining and demonstrates their failure to appreciate the economic hardship  their policies bring to Appalachia.

But the report doesn’t talk at all about the very real environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, or about the ways that some mining can continue without destroying the state’s economy. And, well, is Sen. Inhofe that reliable of a source of these sorts of things, given the stuff he’s said about global warming? (See Joe Romm’s Climate Progress posts “Inhofe recycles long-debunked denier talking points” and “Inhofe on why global warming isn’t real: ‘God’s still up there.’” And don’t miss Inhofe saying that he should have been ranked higher on Rolling Stone’s list of the planet’s “worst enemies.”

And really, Inhofe and his report seem to be a bit behind on developments here in Appalachia, where even the Manchin administration (Joe, not Jon) is coming around to the idea that mining impacts must be reduced. Not for nothing, but will the coal industry blast Inhofe as an out-of-stater who doesn’t know anything about coal? Last time I checked, there was one surface coal mine in Oklahoma.

Sure, Randy Huffman has tried to emphasize that his new procedures on valley fill permits are about staffing and resource issues within WVDEP. But the real story in what WVDEP has announced is that agency officials are no longer simply poo-pooing the idea that mountaintop removal has damaging consequences. Compare what Randy said in his Senate testimony last June:

Without evidence of any significant impact on the rest of the ecosystem beyond the diminished numbers of certain genus of mayflies, the State cannot say that there has been a violation of its narrative standard.

to what he said to me last week:

Our opposition [to EPA’s permit reviews] has been more about the process than it has been about the science. There is a lot of validity to the concerns about the downstream impacts.

I talked to Randy Huffman a little while ago, and asked him about his letter to Inhofe, and if his views have changed since then. He said he’s still unhappy with the process EPA is using — applying the state’s narrative water quality criteria  (prohibiting significant adverse impact to the chemical, physical, hydrologic, or biological components of aquatic ecosystems) on a permit-by-permit basis, without any concrete guidance that will limit and reduce downstream impacts from fills.  Here’s part of what he said:

The big recognition to me is that I’m sitting around waiting for EPA to do something that I should have been doing myself. I still think their process stinks, but I recognize it was their response to our agency not having the kind of guidance that we need.