Coal Tattoo


Really, isn’t anyone — outside of the people who wrote it — fooling themselves if they think they already understand all of the implications of the new “Stream Protection Rule” proposal made public this week by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement?

Gosh, I mean, the rule itself is 1,238 pages long and the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement is 1,267 pages long.  As I wrote in today’s Gazette story, though, really solid, definitive reactions from industry officials and their political allies were flying out literally as Interior Department officials were making these documents public.

For example, here’s West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Joe Manchin:

This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is absolutely crippling West Virginia families and businesses. This proposed rule would have a devastating impact on our families, jobs and economy, and it fails to strike an appropriate balance between the economy and the environment.

The media isn’t much better. Here’s Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews:

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is trying to downplay the economic impact on coal states like West Virginia.

Several years ago a draft of the report leaked, saying the updated stream buffer rule would result in the loss of 7,000 jobs. The outcry was intense, but the Interior Department patched that up by just using a different formula to come up with new numbers… and voila!

Now the agency claims, with no hint of irony, that the rules will preserve “economic opportunities.” Specifically, according to their consultant’s revised calculations, 460 jobs will be lost, but 250 jobs will be created in mine reclamation work.

If we get many more of these Washington “opportunities” we’ll have to turn out the lights.

Here’s the thing, though, if Hoppy had actually read the rule or the EIS, he wouldn’t have used that 460-jobs figure — because it’s not in the report. It was mistakenly given to media during a conference call. I don’t know if Hoppy was on that call or saw the number in another media account, but he sure didn’t look at the actual economic impact numbers in the EIS, or he would have noticed the problem.

To be fair to Hoppy, I doubt any of the reporters who had to cover this story on deadline yesterday finished every single page of both documents. I certainly didn’t. But any reasonable reading of my story will not see the broad, sweeping conclusions he’s already drawing. I specifically noted:

The exact contents of the rule — such as how well it protects streams inside mining permit area “footprints” or toughens the definition of “material damage” to streams that isn’t allowed under the law — were still being digested by all sides Thursday.

Then there’s the folks over at the Daily Mail. They ran a Washington Post news service story on their front page. But I guess they wanted a little more “war on coal” nonsense, so Joel Ebert gave readers more than 1,000 words of the West Virginia congressional delegation’s press releases, with a little bit from the Sierra Club and the Highlands Conservancy tossed in at the end. But neither of their stories bothered to provide readers any read context about the “pervasive and irreversible” environmental impacts of mountaintop removal or the growing science linking mountaintop removal to serious public health problems.

It’s been a long time since things like perennial and intermittent streams and buffer zones were big news, following the landmark ruling in 1999 by then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II.

But as OSM clearly explained, in that long time there’s been a huge amount of research about mountaintop removal, with almost all of it showing that the impacts are terribly destructive, and that current regulatory standards and enforcement aren’t enough:

Our primary purpose in proposing this rule is to strike a better balance between “protection of the environment and agricultural productivity and the Nation’s needs for coal as an essential source of energy.” Specifically, the proposed rule is designed to minimize the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, and site productivity, with particular emphasis on protecting or restoring streams, aquatic ecosystems, riparian habitats and corridors, native vegetation, and the ability of mined land to support the uses that it was capable of supporting before mining.

Our proposed changes reflect our experience during the more than three decades since adoption of the existing regulations, as well as advances in scientific knowledge and mining and reclamation techniques during that time.

Coal mining operations continue to have adverse impacts on streams, fish, and wildlife despite the enactment of SMCRA and the adoption of federal regulations implementing that law more than 30 years ago. Those impacts include loss of headwater streams, long-term degradation of water quality in streams downstream of a mine, displacement of pollution-sensitive species of fish and insects by pollution-tolerant species, fragmentation of large blocks of mature hardwood forests, replacement of native species by highly competitive non-native species that inhibit reestablishment of native plant communities, and compaction and improper construction of postmining soils that result in a reduction of site productivity and adverse impacts on watershed hydrology.

Surely it can’t be that our congressional delegation doesn’t care at all about things things, or that our media doesn’t find them worth reporting. I remember when the mountaintop removal story was really just starting to emerge, following the remarkable work of Penny Loeb for U.S. News and World Report. One popular line back then was that we didn’t know enough about the impacts, so we needed more research. We’ve had that research now, but nobody wants to hear about it, let alone act on it. So instead, we’re treated to what had to be pre-written press releases and statements that just insert the date or the particular rule at issue and blast away and popular targets like President Obama and the EPA.

We’ve all seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well for the good guys.