Coal Tattoo

EPA, Democrats respond to coal industry attacks

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure‘s interrogation of EPA acting water chief Nancy Stoner seems to be winding down, as the GOP and the coal industry continue their efforts to discredit the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the impacts of coal mining on Appalachian communities.

Testimony from the first panel of witnesses was about what you would expect, given last week’s initial day of this two-part hearing, dubbed, “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs.”

David Sunding, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, warned lawmakers that Clean Water Act Section 404 permits are a big deal — involving projects for more than $220 billion in investments economy-wide every year — and questions about EPA’s review of them for mining could ripple through other industries.

Reed Hopper, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation (a group that generally attacks all government efforts to protect the environment or public health), testified that his group believes EPA’s decision to veto Arch Coal’s permit for the Spruce Mine was an abuse of power that erodes the rights of all citizens.

Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, told committee members that the Obama administration’s “war on coal” makes Appalachia “ground zero for the fundamental overreach of the Obama regulatory agenda.”

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, testified that his organization believes “the denial and revocation of 404 permits has already threatened our economy and our workforce.”

Today’s hearing went a little different from last week’s in some respects, though.

First of all, someone from EPA was actually given the chance to speak and explain the agency’s policies. Of course, the GOP committee leadership, contrary to long-standing protocols for congressional hearings, made EPA acting water chief Nancy Stoner follow the panel of industry witnesses. Traditionally, officials from administrative agencies usually appear first at such hearings.

Stoner made a strong statement about what EPA’s trying to do:

Appalachian families should not have to choose between healthy watersheds and a healthy economy — they deserve both.

And, she explained EPA’s view of its role in dealing with Clean Water Act 404 permits:

EPA does not view this authority as an opportunity to second guess the Corps’ decision-making, but rather as an important responsibility to conduct an independent review of projects that have the potential to significantly impact public health.

Stoner explained to committee members that EPA’s actions are backed up by more than 100 peer-reviewed studies, and she specifically cited the new West Virginia University paper that further documents concerns about mountaintop removal’s impacts on human health of residents who live near these mines.

This time around, we also got to see a couple of Democratic committee members actually challenge some of what the industry witnesses and their Republican hosts were saying.

For example, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Timothy Bishop of New York, pointed out that EPA has not rejected any of the 140 pending coal-related 404 permit applications the Obama administration inherited when it took office two years ago. And, Bishop noted that over the past 39 years, EPA has used its veto authority only 13 times, while processing more than two million 404 permits:

Two million permits set against 13 permits [vetoed] It’s a little bit difficult to argue that there is a level of uncertainty that is debilitating.

And, Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., questioned Carey’s proposal from the Ohio Coal Association for a “regulatory time out”, saying:

You’re not going to see no regulation.

Richardson tried to ask Carey what sort of middle ground proposals his organization would have for dealing with EPA, but Carey said he wasn’t interested in such compromises.

And Carey had another bit of testimony that was very interesting. In his public statement to the committee, he mentioned increased safety enforcement by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration as part of the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

In his written testimony, Carey tried to insist that his group was “… not complaining about enforcement actions that protect miners’ safety …” But, among a list of proposals his group is opposing, he included  MSHA’s plan to “End Black Lung,” a disease that has killed 10,000 coal miners in the last decade.