Coal Tattoo

AP photo by Jeff Gentner

We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Dec. 3, 2009

I was re-reading those words this morning as I considered yesterday’s big “Rally for Coal” sponsored by Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (the state Supreme Court says there’s really no such thing as “Acting Governor“) and also heavily promoted by Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin, of course, has been seeking as much publicity as possible on this one, taking time out from a statewide tour to have a press conference the day EPA announced its veto of the Spruce Mine — and then yesterday, conveniently announcing just hours before the big rally that his very first piece of legislation as a United State Senator would be one to strip EPA of its authority to police the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting practices under the Clean Water Act.

But I wondered what Sen. Robert C. Byrd would say today about the Spruce Mine veto, and about the way West Virginia’s political leadership is responding to the Obama administration’s continued push to try to reduce coal’s impacts on our environment and on coalfield communities.

Well, no one can say for sure. But we do know that Sen. Byrd previously offered a much more measured response to the EPA’s threatened veto of this permit than other elected officials in the state, saying in March 2010:

The announcement by the EPA today of its Proposed Determination to exercise its veto authority over the Spruce #1 Mine permit begins a process that enables the company and the public to comment on the matter in writing and at public hearings. I would strongly encourage all parties to seek a balanced, fair, reasonable compromise.

EPA Administrator Jackson reiterated to me that more wide-ranging guidance is forthcoming in the near future, providing clarity relating to water quality issues and mining permits. I encouraged her to move forward as soon as possible so those seeking approval of permits can fully understand the parameters for acceptable activity under the Clean Water Act.

You have to wonder if Sen. Byrd wouldn’t have been pushing — both publicly and privately — for answers from Arch Coal executives and from EPA about why the two sides could come up with some reasonable permit changes, based on that once-secret report by Morgan Worldwide’s engineers. It’s very clear that none of the state’s remaining political leaders are interested in going that route.

In fact, both sides have really just gone back to their respective corners, throwing out the same sound bites and shouting in to the same echo chambers, trying to use the Spruce Mine veto to energize their base of supporters.

On the one hand, the West Virginia Coal Association front group Friends of Coal issued an unfortunately worded “Call to Arms” for yesterday’s rally, a move association President Bill Raney had to quickly get pulled from the Internet. But industry officials continued their cries that the Spruce Mine veto was practically the end of the world for West Virginia and an indication that the Obama administration might shut down every business everywhere if Sen. Manchin didn’t step in and stop them.  Manchin warned fellow senators in a letter:

At a time when our nation is struggling to recover from the worst economic recession in history, and with an unemployment rate that has hovered near 10 percent for two years, the precedent this decision sets could not be more dangerous. Although the EPA claims no other permits are currently being considered for a retroactive veto, the potential negative effects of this decision are staggering. Now, every similarly valid Section 404 permit is faced with regulatory limbo and potentially the same after-the-fact reversal. Some activists are already urging the EPA to apply this decision to other operations in West Virginia and other states, putting countless more jobs, and our economic recovery, at grave risk.

What would Sen. Byrd have said about that? As I said, we obviously don’t know for sure … but in his “Embrace the Future” commentary, Sen. Byrd did say:

… When coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

And he also said:

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington … West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

And he also said:

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

And, Sen. Byrd advised us:

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

But now, how about the other side — the folks in the environmental community and with citizen groups who oppose mountaintop removal or (some of them) oppose all coal mining?

Well, for one thing, I haven’t heard many of those folks pointing to the Spruce Mine proposal that John Morgan drew up and suggesting they would support that as a compromise alternative to the permit Arch Coal pushed for and EPA vetoed. And the public statements from the environmental groups were mostly a big “I told you so” aimed at urging EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to keep her veto pen handy for other permits. And while they sometimes talk about it, the idea of a slow transition away from coal, to blunt the potential economic and energy impacts, isn’t really at the top of the environmental community’s sound-bite list.

What would Sen. Byrd have said about this? How about this:

Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

In many ways, the responses from both sides are understandable. Many people these days get much of their information from blogs and special interest group Facebook and Twitter posts aimed at firing up the base, not educating and informing the public (not that the mainstream media in the coalfields does much better … take my buddy Hoppy Kercheval for instance, or ask Bray Cary’s West Virginia Media if they’ll Webcast the next rally that environmental groups hold at the Capitol).

Sen. Byrd might remind us that both sides have legitimate concerns.

Coal miners and their families, for example:

… Change is undeniably upon the coal industry again. The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities. I share those concerns. But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.

Or the citizens who live near mountaintop removal mines:

Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

Maybe it’s telling that Sen. Manchin is making his first bill one aimed at just one mountaintop removal permit that the coal industry has made such a fuss about, rather than legislation aimed at preventing things like the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in nearly 40 years. At least Sen. Rockefeller took time out from bashing EPA to say he would re-introduce the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2010 “very soon.”

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., issued a much stronger statement about the legislation in response to this week’s MSHA briefing on its investigation of Upper Big Branch. To paraphrase Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers union, there’s a lot of talk from politicians about putting an end to “job killing” but not nearly as much about taking action to stop “people killing.”

In discussions like the one about the Spruce Mine, you hear a lot from politicians about “balance” and finding a way to protect the environment while not harming the economy. Senate President Tomblin, for example, said at yesterday’s coal pep rally that West Virginia:

… Can mine coal in an environmentally sound manner.

But what does that mean? What is an “environmentally sound manner”? Well, EPA didn’t think that the Spruce Mine, as designed by Arch Coal, was environmentally sound. That’s why they vetoed the permit. And EPA believes much more stringent permit reviews are needed, using tougher guidance about what constitutes environmental damage that needs to be prevented or better minimized or reduced.

Interestingly in that regard, West Virginia University issued a news release earlier this week to announce:  “WVU brings science to mountaintop mining debate.” The release described a study, funded in part by $330,000 from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, to examine cumulative impacts of mountaintop removal and potential ways to reduce those mipacts. The WVU release noted:

In July of 2010, Petty and colleague Kyle Hartman, a professor of wildlife and fisheries resources, participated in a U.S. Environmental Protection Science Advisory Board, which was established to comment on the practice of mountaintop mining and its effect on water resources.

What the release didn’t make clear is that this EPA Science Advisory Board panel — which two professors from our state’s flagship university served on — concluded that EPA is right about the impacts mountaintop removal is having on coalfield water quality.

So what are the politicians talking about when they say doing mountaintop removal while also protecting the environment? None of them really ever say. What would Sen. Byrd say about that? How about this:

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.