Coal Tattoo

Well, the rumors had been floating around for more than a month now that parts of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s EIS on its stream protection rule had been leaked, so the story was bound to show up somewhere sooner or later … and Tim Huber over at The Associated Press got the scoop on it earlier this week.

I’ve been out for a couple days and I’m just catching up on it, but I made sure to post a copy of Tim’s story over at the Gazette’s Mining the Mountains page, so it doesn’t disappear from our free Web site in a week or so.

According to Tim’s story:

The Obama administration’s own experts estimate their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement document says the agency’s preferred rules would impose standards for water quality and restrictions on mining methods that would affect the quality or quantity of streams near coal mines. The rules are supposed to replace Bush-era regulations that set up buffer zones around streams and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

It continues:

The office, a branch of the Interior Department, estimated that the protections would trim coal production to the point that an estimated 7,000 of the nation’s 80,600 coal mining jobs would be lost. Production would decrease or stay flat in 22 states, but climb 15 percent in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

OK … that sounds pretty bad, and it certainly fuels the “war on coal” cries from the National Mining Association and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, both of whom were quoted in Tim’s story. But, the story didn’t describe any other details — such as over what time limit those jobs would be lost or what sorts of benefits OSMRE has quantified for its rule. Frankly, a common thread in Tim’s AP reporting has been to publish the estimated costs of rules — such as those being proposed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — but not also publish the estimated benefits to society from those rules.

And in this instance, AP did not make the document it obtained available to readers or its member news outlets online — so there’s no way for readers to really dig into what those figures mean. But heck, Tim had the scoop here, so it’s hard to blame him for not sharing the document with readers when doing so might mean AP didn’t have the story all to itself.

Coal Tattoo reader Matt Wasson of the group Appalachian Voices wasted no time in taking AP and Tim Huber to task, with an unfortunate and silly attack that undermined some pretty reasonable questions about the AP story and the study it was based on:

Without additional context, there’s no way to understand what these numbers actually mean. By putting them out there in sensationalist terms without any way for anyone else to see the context and assumptions that went into them, Huber has done an enormous disservice to entire debate about protecting streams from the impacts of coal mining. And while reporting on leaked documents has a long and proud tradition, isn’t there some obligation to provide essential information needed to understand what’s reported about them?

Of course, it seems that there were people outside federal and state agencies that already had their hands on the secret draft document because Huber provided a quote from the National Mining Association that could only have been made if they had already analyzed the numbers (wonder who leaked it to Huber?). Worse, Huber reported the NMA’s response without even contacting any supporters of a strong Stream Protection Rule to see if there might be different views on those numbers.

I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot more about this OSMRE document in the weeks and months to come … so stay tuned …