Coal Tattoo

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin  is briefed by Jimmy Gianato, right, state director of homeland security and emergency management, at the National Guard Armory before a teleconference with officials scattered throughout storm-affected areas of West Virginia, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Charleston, W.Va. At left is West Virginia National Guard Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)

It’s interesting to watch what’s happened over the last few days in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie — one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s biggest and most vocal supporters — has lavished praise on President Obama and the administration’s response to the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. I mean, wow, here’s a bit of what happened, courtesy of The Hill:

The governor of the storm-ravaged state of New Jersey, Chris Christie (R), said Tuesday that he wasn’t “concerned or interested” in presidential politics at the moment.

Christie, an outspoken surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said he was focused on rescuing residents and rehabilitating his state, when asked about reports that the GOP nominee might visit New Jersey to tour damage left in the wake of Sandy.

“I have no idea nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do,” said Christie on “Fox and Friends.”

“I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don’t know me.”

But here in West Virginia, some of our elected officials have more than enough time for politics, especially coal politics.  On Tuesday, while thousands of West Virginians were without power and heat, buried under huge amounts of snow from a climate change-fueled “Frankenstorm, Sen. Joe Manchin’s office had time to send out a press release blasting the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency:

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, Rep. Nick Rahall and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin (all D-W.Va.) are outraged with the Environmental Protection Agency’s delay of a key permit that would allow the CONSOL mine and King Coal Highway to move forward …  After the EPA delayed issuing a needed 402 permit, CONSOL issued a WARN Notice tonight notifying workers that they would be laid off.

It was kind of sad to see that even Sen. Rockefeller got involved, though his comments were a bit more restrained than those from Sen. Manchin, Gov. Tomblin and Rep. Rahall:

People deserve straight answers from the federal government, without the delays and uncertainty. West Virginia can’t move forward if projects that have been negotiated for so many years remain stuck in limbo, with no clear end in sight.  And WARN notices are themselves a tremendous hardship for miners and their families.  We are talking about real people and real paychecks that provide food and shelter for real families. I want to be sure that these hard working miners don’t get caught in the middle of bureaucracy and delay. There is simply too much at stake. Both sides must come together to get this resolved for Mingo County and throughout southern West Virginia.

And even CONSOL seemed to be trying not to make too much of all of this, burying this little comment at the end of their corporate press release:

CONSOL Energy is appreciative of the efforts of the state of West Virginia to issue all the required permits under their jurisdiction and remains optimistic that as the company continues to work with federal, state, and local officials, it will be ultimately successful in securing the approvals necessary to enable jobs and economic development for the mine and highway project in Mingo County and the state.

This aerial photo shows a collapsed house along the central Jersey Shore coast on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. New Jersey got the brunt of Sandy, which made landfall in the state and killed six people. More than 2 million customers were without power as of Wednesday afternoon, down from a peak of 2.7 million. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

But not Sen. Manchin, who said:

As a West Virginian, I watched this project come together one partnership at a time for the past two decades. As Governor, I made sure that the state supported the project’s permitting and funding requests. Now, as Senator, I am incensed and infuriated that the EPA would intentionally delay the needed permit for a public-private project that would bring so many good jobs and valuable infrastructure to communities that so desperately need them. The EPA has lost court case after court case for its overreach, and it should be using better judgment by now. I vow to work with the Governor’s office, our entire Congressional delegation and members of both parties to make sure that this vital project will move forward.

(Not for nothing, but read that one part again — “As Governor, I made sure that the state supported the projects permitting … ” Are governors really supposed to make sure that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection supports permits, or are they supposed to make sure that WVDEP follows the law?)

And certainly Gov. Tomblin was not very restrained in his comments on all of this:

Once again the EPA has stepped in the way of a great project here in West Virginia. The EPA has been delaying this project for far too long. Even after losing all of these court battles, the EPA cannot seem to understand the big picture and the true scope of its authority

Now, much of the coverage of this permit dispute (see here and here) didn’t even bother to explain the environmental questions that EPA has raised about the Buffalo Mountain mining project associated with this section of the King Coal Highway, even those those questions have been well documented in the public record before (see here and here).  EPA has said that this permit — a 2,308-acre proposal for the area between Belo and Delbarton in Mingo County — “is among the largest single mining projects ever proposed in Appalachia” and that “the scale and magnitude of environmental and water quality impacts from the mine as currently proposed are as significant as any mining operation we have reviewed in the pats 20 years”:

The EPA’s review of the mining operator’s proposal indicates that feasible, cost effective steps are available to be incorporated into the operation to avoid and minimize the significant, adverse environmental and water quality impacts associated with the Buffalo Mountain mine. Unlike Buffalo Mountain’s mine design, modern, technically feasible and cost-effective mining practices are being proposed and incorporated by many mining companies into their mine designs with the intent to significantly reduce the adverse effects to the aquatic ecosystem.

The again, the folks over at Grist have been incorrectly describing this story this way on Twitter:

Coal company blames EPA for mining layoffs. Except the EPA had nothing to do with it.

In Grist’s defense, EPA was a little cagey in its media statement, saying on the one hand:

EPA is not aware of any outstanding permitting issues for the Miller Creek mine, where CONSOL Energy has announced that layoffs are occurring …

…   But then adding:

Review of the company’s Buffalo Mountain mining project is a high-priority for EPA. The Agency is actively working with the State of West Virginia and CONSOL, and with its partner federal agencies, to assess impacts on water quality from mining, and is meeting with CONSOL to review its mining plans … The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to review the proposed mine under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and to complete preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act. EPA will work with our federal and state agency partners to complete the CWA and NEPA processes for the Buffalo Mountain project and associated King Coal Highway.

To be perfectly clear: What’s happened here is that CONSOL and local officials added the mining project to the previously studied plans for the King Coal Highway. EPA said this was a significant change, and that the environmental impacts — especially of the proposed valley fills — needed to be more closely examined in a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The WVDEP didn’t think that much more study was needed. But EPA won out, and now the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highways Administration are working on that supplemental study. That’s what is holding up a final decision on the 404 permit for the Buffalo Mountain mine — and that’s what led CONSOL to layoff these 145 workers.

With all that said, one of the interesting things here is something that we followed up on in today’s Gazette, regarding the Clean Water Act Section 402 water pollution discharge permit for this CONSOL operation:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s environmental regulators threatened to sue the Obama administration over tougher language in a mountaintop removal permit, even though the company seeking the permit accepted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new water quality limits …  EPA had said it would not allow the state to issue CONSOL’s Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit without a provision to force action to control mine runoff if levels of pollution-related electrical conductivity, which scientists say is a crucial measure of water quality.

Department of Environmental Protection officials opposed the inclusion of such language and in a letter last week threatened to take EPA to court over it. DEP officials eventually agreed to allow the language. EPA dropped its objections to the permit, and on Monday the state issued the permit worked out by CONSOL officials and EPA representatives.

You’re reading that right. West Virginia regulators were against the idea of putting stronger environmental standards into a mining permit — even though the company was willing to go along with the idea. Randy Huffman told me:

It’s not a permit we normally would have approved. We feel it has more in it than is necessary.

Basically, WVDEP believes that demanding these kinds of permit limits amounts to EPA continuing to use the water quality guidance that a federal judge earlier this year threw out, and state officials were willing to go back to court to force EPA to back off.

Of course, it’s worth wondering whether Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Manchin were just trying to get more media attention to reinforce the idea that they’re on board with the coal industry’s fight against President Obama’s “war on coal.” Given that, the other question is what the senator and the governor would do if President Obama decided to pay a visit to the storm-battered areas of West Virginia … would they appear with the president, or suddenly have pressing business at the other end of the state?

An unidentified man walks through the snow among campaign signs in Hurricane, W.V.,Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The city of Hurricane was covered in snow from the western edge of superstorm Sandy. The National Weather Service said a foot and more of snow was reported in lower elevations of West Virginia, where most towns and roads are. High elevations in the mountains were getting more than two feet and a blizzard warning for more than a dozen counties was in effect until Wednesday afternoon. (AP Photo/James Crisp)