Coal Tattoo

I was starting to think that maybe my good friend Sen. Joe Manchin was on vacation … I mean, hours and hours went by after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its final rules to combat cross-state air pollution, and Sen. Manchin hadn’t issued a news release yet.

So I was relieved when the release from Manchin’s overactive press office finally reached my inbox at nearly 7 p.m. last evening:

“The continued jobs-destroying overreach of the EPA is outrageous, and it’s incomprehensible that in these difficult economic times, the Administration would be so callous as to arbitrarily impose onerous rules that they know will cost countless American jobs and raise the daily costs of life for so many struggling families,” Senator Manchin said. “Once again, the EPA is taking aim at the coal industry, small businesses and the hardworking families who help power and build this nation.

“As I have said before, it’s time the EPA realizes that it cannot regulate what has not been legislated. Our government was designed so that elected representatives are in charge of making important decisions, not bureaucrats. That principle is even more true today when the American people see the consequences of the EPA making rules that affect our whole country and could hurt our fragile economy.”

Sen. Manchin never fails to disappoint … but come on now. Arbitrarily impose onerous rules? EPA can’t regulate what hasn’t been legislated? I wonder if Sen. Manchin doesn’t need to get some better staff work done, or if he’s just trying to misstate things in his zeal to show his allegiance to the coal industry.

Maybe Sen. Manchin disagrees with EPA’s rationale for this final rule. But he doesn’t offer one bit of evidence to support his allegation that it’s being arbitrarily imposed. EPA officials outlined their reasoning pretty clearly right here on the agency’s website. And trying to regulate what hasn’t been legislated? Seriously? Perhaps Sen. Manchin needs to go back and actually read the Clean Air Act.

Congress already gave EPA authority under the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” provision to to cut down interstate pollution that interferes with the attainment and maintenance of the national ambient air quality standards protecting public health. That’s in section 110(a)(2)(D)(i)(I) of the law, Senator. It’s one thing if Sen. Manchin wants to discuss or disagree with the actual way in which EPA is writing these rules, but he’s not doing that — he’s making incorrect statements about what authority EPA has and doesn’t have under laws already passed by Congress.

And that leads me to EPA, and that agency’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson. While reading Sen. Manchin’s statement, I couldn’t help but think about the brief discussion I had with Administrator Jackson earlier yesterday during a press conference call about those EPA air pollution rules.

When EPA issued its initial press release, this part of it jumped out at me:

“No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses. These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air they breathe,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “By maximizing flexibility and leveraging existing technology, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will help ensure that American families aren’t suffering the consequences of pollution generated far from home, while allowing states to decide how best to decrease dangerous air pollution in the most cost effective way.”

Now wait a second, I thought … another community’s polluters“? Now, in this case,  that means at least partly all of the coal-fired power plants that line the Ohio River Valley … in places like Moundsville and New Haven in West Virginia. Missing from EPA’s statement was any recognition that those power plants aren’t there just so that the evil coal companies and utilities and arbitrarily send pollution over to big cities or suburbs on the East Coast. Those power plants are there to give those city folks electricity to run their iPhones and their air conditioners.

So it seemed to me that the folks enjoying the benefits of that “cheap electricity” from coal aren’t exactly powerless to do anything about the pollution that drifts their way from the coalfields. One thing they could do, for example, is to demand from that their political leaders push for other, cleaner forms of energy. Of course, some folks in those communities are doing that.

And Lisa P. Jackson is a smart, educated and very capable woman. So it surprised me when she repeated almost that same statement from EPA’s press release in her conference call with the media. I perhaps foolishly assumed that Administrator Jackson understood the connection between coal-fired power plant pollution and the “cheap electricity” she and her neighbors to our east take advantage of every day.

When it came my turn to ask a question, I decided to put this issue on the table, and see what she had to say. My question went something like this:

… As you know a lot of this pollution that this rule is aimed at is produced generating electricity and other goods and services for people who don’t live where the pollution is actually produced. And I’m wondering what your agency is doing to follow up on its promise that it would work with areas like the coalfields of Appalachian to provide alternative economies and alternative jobs to replace those that might be impacted by these sorts of rules.

I was amazed when Administrator Jackson responded by telling everybody on the call that I didn’t understand the issue at hand. She said:

Just to clarify for everybody … this is a rule that talks about upwind and downwind air pollution. So it’s actually sort of the opposite of what you asked, with respect to air, what we’re trying to do is ensure is that someone who is generating pollution upwind isn’t causing a place downwind to be out of attainment for ozone or SO2, and therefore making people unhealthy in a state that has no ability through their permit process to do anything about it.

She went on:

Now, there are other forms of local pollution, and since I know your issues are … you know, water pollution, or land pollution from waste disposal, those are being addressed separately.

Actually, Administrator Jackson, if your staff ever show you a copy of Coal Tattoo or of the Gazette, you’ll see we are concerned about quite a lot of issues about the coal industry … We’ve covered your agency’s efforts regarding greenhouse gas emissions and the recent proposal to for the first time regulate air toxics from coal-fired power plants. And we understand what you’re up to with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

But it’s also clear from statements put out by folks like Sen. Manchin that your agency has a tough fight on its hands from the coal industry’s powerful political friends. And the folks who work at coal mines and power plants in places like Mingo and Mason counties in West Virginia have a right to straight talk from you and others in the Obama administration about how cleaning up coal pollution will affect their lives, including their jobs.

We’ve tried on this blog and in our newspaper to explain to readers in West Virginia the downside of coal, and all of the ways that EPA’s regulatory proposals might help to curb the negative impacts of this industry.

But it’s also true that your agency, on behalf of your boss, President Obama, made a very clear promise to the people of the coalfields two years ago:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

Sure, that promise was made in the context of EPA’s announced crackdown on mountaintop removal permits. But it clearly is a commitment that must go beyond that, to helping communities — places that helped for generations to make our country strong — that are likely to see job losses from new air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gas limits on coal. These aren’t separate issues. They’re all connected, and I’m sure that Lisa Jackson knows and understands that.

Administrator Jackson did go on to talk about the notion of “green jobs” a bit in response to my question:

In terms of what the administration is doing to try to help communities justly transition to cleaner forms of energy, I can just repeat the fact that this administration, this president has from the beginning said that there is great opportunity in greener, cleaner forms of energy. It’s better for our health, it’s better for our security, it’s better for our environment. He has shepherded and stewarded everything form the recovery act which had tens of billions of dollars in investment in cleaner form of energy, including a carbon capture and storage project right in West Virginia at, I think it’s an AEP plant, Mountaineer. So you know, whether it’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, whether it’s been work through our clean water programs to help communities finance and deal with water pollution, whether it’s working with labor unions and others, boilermakers and others who will get work when plants have to control their pollution and do it here in America. I think this administration has policies that make good on what we’ve all talked about, which is we should invest in our energy infrastructure just like we invest in our other infrastructure. It makes our country cleaner, it makes our economy stronger, and it makes our people healthier, and as you can see from these estimates, we’re not talking about small amounts of health improvements. We’re talking about saving lives, and literally changing people’s ability to enjoy the life they have.

But you’ll notice that the one West Virginia example she mentioned is one in which the work is meant to help keep the coal industry viable in a carbon-constrained world — not one aimed at helping transition folks who might lose coal-based jobs into something else with more of a future.

It’s been two years since the crackdown on mountaintop removal was announced. We’re half-way through the third year of President Obama’s term. Perhaps it’s time for someone like Lisa Jackson to visit West Virginia, and tell us more about exactly how the coalfields can join in the clean, green energy future she keeps talking about.