Coal Tattoo

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Coal brought a large population to the McDowell County in the 1940’s. Now the population is shrinking and the county suffers from unemployment and poverty. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize the Republican leadership of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for setting up such a one-sided, clearly scripted hearing aimed at piling criticism on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the Obama administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining.

After all, the Democrats in the Senate held a mountaintop removal hearing that wasn’t exactly the most balanced affair around … and this is all just politics, right?

Wrong … this is supposed to be about governing. And that’s why I’m a little sorry I used a pithy headline on yesterday’s post, House hearing: Let the EPA bashing begin!

There are serious issues here on all sides, even if nobody wants to admit that the folks they happen to disagree with have legitimate concerns.

Coal miners are rightly concerned about their jobs and their families’ futures. Folks who live near mountaintop removal mines are rightly upset about the way these mines impact their lives. Scientists are troubled about the growing data showing mountaintop removal’s negative effects on water quality, forests and public health.

But it’s hard to take a hearing like this seriously when it is all so staged, such an obviously one-sided affair and carried out in a manner that does so little to point the region toward solutions that will help deal with the big issues facing the coalfields. And I wonder often if the vast majority of West Virginians — folks who don’t like mountaintop removal,  also don’t like the idea of people losing their jobs, but don’t live their lives obsessed with hating coal or despising the EPA — are put off by the posturing from both sides.

Really now … how far do the industry’s repeated nonsensical arguments about bottled mineral water not meeting EPA’s conductivity standard really get anybody in understanding the water quality issues scientists are worried about? And why do environmental activists persist in trying to make out like coal companies are actually dropping bombs on the people of Southern West Virginia?

And that’s the way yesterday’s hearing went, though because coal’s friends in the GOP House leadership controlled the witness list, the industry’s side of this pointless political game carried the day.

Does anyone doubt that the EPA’s involvement in tougher permit reviews and new water quality guidance is frustrating for the industry?

Surely any citizen who has tried to navigate the federal bureaucracy can appreciate the experience of having a big investment riding on the whims of seemingly nameless and faces folks in Philadelphia or Washington.

But his rhetoric aside, I’m not sure that coal industry witness Michael Gardner made a very compelling case with his complaints about how his company, Oxford Resources Partners, was treated. I mean … they got two of the four permits they wanted and withdrew the other two from EPA’s consideration. And it sounded like from his written testimony that Oxford didn’t have much trouble getting high-level meetings with top EPA officials to discuss its specific permits — not something that every common coalfield citizen can expect out of their elected officials.

On the other hand, it’s also clear to anyone who is watching that EPA is absolutely not being very transparent in how it’s dealing with mining permits in general or with its overall policy on these issues. If the Bush administration had tried to implement some very weak water quality limits for mountaintop removal through administrative guidance — instead of through a rulemaking with public input — would citizen groups and environmental activists be screaming about it? Almost certainly.

And if you’re a coal miner in someplace like Logan County, W.Va.,  all of the talk about “clean energy” and a new economy sound pretty far-fetched — and it is, when government and business leaders put little effort or energy into trying to make those sorts of projects happen. A solar panel plant that might become reality in five or six years — or 10 or 20 years — doesn’t help you make your mortgage payments today and send your kid to college next year.

But why not also acknowledge that EPA’s permit reviews have done some good, forcing a couple of companies to take positive steps to improve their mining operations and reduce environmental impacts? (See here, here and here). I didn’t hear anybody at yesterday’s hearing even mention this.

It makes you wonder if EPA was right in what it said about the constant talk from West Virginia political leaders about the need for “clarity” in the mining permit process:

The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country.

About the closest yesterday’s hearing got to facing real issues was when National Mining Association President Hal Quinn cited a U.S. Department of Energy report that said mining productivity in Appalachia had dropped by 20 percent.

But Quinn had to go and blame that increase entirely on increased regulatory restrictions on mining, when that’s not at all what the DOE’s Energy Information Administration said in its recent “Coal Market Module.”  As I’m sure Hal Quinn knows, EIA says the problem is much broader than that:

Over the projection period, labor productivity is expected to decline in most coal supply regions, reflecting the trend of the previous five years. Higher stripping ratios and the added labor needed to maintain more extensive underground mines offset productivity gains achieved from improved equipment, automation, and technology. Productivity in some areas of the East is projected to decline as operations move from mature coalfields to marginal reserve areas. Regulatory restrictions on surface mines and fragmentation of underground reserves limit the benefits that can be achieved by Appalachian producers from economies of scale.

As reported and discussed here on Coal Tattoo many times, Central Appalachian coal production is expected to be cut roughly in half by the end of this decade — and that’s without any new restrictions on mountaintop removal or government regulation of greenhouse gases.  As Downstream Strategies said in its must-read report, The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification:

Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region’s coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.

On thing that has been on my mind lately is what coal miners used to tell me when I drove around Southern West Virginia 20 years ago when I first started at the Gazette. They always used to tell me they did what they did so their kids could go to college and do something else. They seldom wanted coal mining to be their son or daughter’s future. But today, all you hear from political leaders like Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin is that “coal defines us” and is West Virginia’s future.

Regional political and business leaders spent most of their time attacking EPA about mining permits, while they ignore the larger problem that looms ever closer. In the meantime, they also shove off the table any meaningful discussion of the other big problems facing the coal industry and the coalfields of Appalachia:

Climate change: It’s real. The science is sound. Most experts think we need to move very quickly if we’re to avoid the worst consequences of the continuing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That means dealing with coal, and finding a way to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. The only way to do that is to reduce the amount of coal we burn or to capture the greenhouse gases.

Carbon capture and sequestration: If the climate crisis is to be dealt with, the only way the coal industry will survive is to perfect and deploy carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, technology. But this stuff is far from perfected and certainly far from deployed. And there’s a general consensus that not nearly enough is being done by the government or the private sector, especially regarding the need to put a price on carbon to force companies to adapt.

Environmental damage from large-scale surface mining: I hate to pick on my good friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. But most of the mountaintop removal is in his district. And he was on the conference committee that wrote the federal surface mining act. He’s in his 18th two-year term in Congress. And Rep. Rahall seems utterly unwilling to even discuss this issue.

Just yesterday, after hearing Rep. Rahall talk about the need for “balance” between protecting the environment and allowing mining to proceed, I asked his office if the congressman would answer this question —

During your opening statement today, you talked a lot about finding a balance between mining jobs and environmental protection. The peer-reviewed science indicates very clearly that current mining practices are damaging water quality and the environment, and harming the health of coalfield residents. Given that scientific evidence, what specific proposals do you have for reducing those impacts as part of seeking a balance between jobs, the environment and public health?

Imagine my surprise when Rep. Rahall’s office asked me to “please specify” what peer-reviewed science I was referring to … well, I did, pointing his staff to the landmark article last January in the respected journal Science (which provides a rundown and survey of the rest of the peer-reviewed literature on strip-mining damage) and to a similar survey article published more recently in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. I pointed out that the more recent article concluded, among other things:

The impacts of these lost forests and buried streams are propagated throughout the river networks of the region as the resulting sediment and chemical pollutants are transmitted downstream. There is, to date, no evidence to suggest that the extensive chemical and hydrologic alterations of streams by MTVF can be offset or reversed by currently required reclamation and mitigation practices.

And, I referred Rep. Rahall’s staff to the most recent work from WVU’s Michael Hendryx, which found:

Coal mining was significantly associated with ecological disintegrity and higher cancer mortality. Spatial analyses also revealed cancer clusters that corresponded to areas of high coal mining intensity. Our results demonstrated significant relationships between ecological integrity and human cancer mortality in West Virginia, and suggested important effects of coal mining on ecological communities and public health. Assessments of ecological integrity therefore may contribute not only to monitoring goals for aquatic life, but also may provide valuable insights for human health and safety.

Here’s the response I got from Rep. Rahall:

I believe there are sufficient laws on the books with respect to SMCRA and the Clean Water Act that if implemented properly, and by that I mean in a manner by which everyone clearly understands what the rules require, that balance can be obtained.

I’m not really sure what that even means. So I submitted a couple of follow-up questions for the congressman:

— Have you reviewed any of the recent peer-reviewed science regarding the environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal? What conclusion do you draw from what you have read?

— Do you believe that current practices are protective of the environment and public health?

— If you believe they are protective, what is your data or evidence to support that conclusion?

— If you don’t believe they are protective, what specific steps have you encouraged relevant agencies to take under existing law to become fully protective?

I haven’t heard back from Rep. Rahall or his staff … but if they don’t want to answer these kinds of questions, they wouldn’t be the only ones.