Coal Tattoo

Mr. Manchin goes to Washington

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Just in from West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a report on his meeting with top Obama administration environmental officials about EPA’s crackdown on mountaintop removal permits:

WASHINGTON – Gov. Joe Manchin today released this statement after meeting with officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency:

“Late this morning, I met with senior White House environmental officials to discuss mountaintop mining and the letters sent yesterday by the EPA about mining permits. We had a very productive meeting during which I shared our concerns about the potential impact of those letters. They explained that they are evaluating a number of permits, but want to look more closely at the two mining permits in question. I told them we are looking for a balance between the environment and the economy, and they assured me that they will work with us to find that balance.

“As a result of our discussions this morning, our state Department of Environmental Protection is bringing together the mining companies that have permits in question and EPA officials. We will expedite this meeting so we can work together to resolve the concerns on these issues and build a dialogue for the future.

“With a new administration comes new policies and they will have to evaluate past policies to determine where they can make improvements. We need to give them the opportunity to sit at the table with us and find common ground.”

[UPDATED — Jim Bruggers is reporting on his KentuckianaGreen.com blog that Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is getting involved, seeking “clarification” of what the EPA did yesterday].

byrdstop.jpgSen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. and Friend of Coal, has also weighed in with a statement on yesterday’s EPA action on mountaintop removal. I’ll let Sen. Byrd speak for himself:

“There appears to be a significant amount of misleading reports regarding permits and mountaintop mining over the past 48 hours.  That is unfortunate for it led to a significant amount of concern among certain sectors of West Virginia industry.”

“I have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to clarify its actions and assuage concerns.”

“I have long advocated responsible mining practices in West Virginia. The future of coal mining depends on striking a balance between environmental conservation, our Nation’s economic and energy needs, and the health of the people who live in and around the areas where mining occurs.  And I truly believe that is possible to achieve.”

“In that regard, we need much better enforcement of the laws governing best mining practices and we must ensure that we are enforcing the laws on the books at every level of government.”

“As we all know, these are perilous economic times.  Every job in West Virginia matters.  Everyone involved must act swiftly in concert and cooperation to remedy any problems that threaten coal jobs and the people who live in the local communities where coal is mined.”

UMWA to EPA: Let’s talk

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United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts has issued the union’s first statement on the Obama administration’s move to begin more thorough review of mountaintop removal mining permits.

Among other things, Roberts criticizes initial media coverage of the EPA announcement yesterday, praises EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for issuing a statement to clarify things, but also asks for a meeting with Jackson “so that we can get direct clarification from her as to what EPA’s stance is regarding the pending permits.”

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Yesterday’s announcement that EPA was diving deep into the controversy over mountaintop removal coal mining is generating a huge amount of media attention. Of course, the best coverage of it in your Charleston Gazette and right here in Coal Tattoo.

But here’s a rundown of what else is being written and said …

There was a basic story in The New York Times Greenwire section, and a separate Times article described the EPA move as “a sharp reversal of Bush administration policies.

In its second-day story, The Associated Press (which previously said EPA was putting 150 to 200 permits on hold) is describing the EPA move this way:

Breaking with the policies of the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is sharpening its oversight of mountaintop coal mining to ensure projects do not harm streams and wetlands.

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Phew. After a big flurry of activity yesterday on mountaintop removal, where do we really stand? What exactly has EPA done and what does it mean?

In my initial story, I described EPA’s action as the start of a “crackdown” on mountaintop removal. I still think that’s correct. But the emphasis probably should be on the word “start” — because judging from some pretty big differences in the two permit comment letters EPA issued Monday, we don’t know how much of a crackdown it’s eventually going to turn out to be.

In one instance, EPA says the federal Army Corps of Engineers can’t issue a valley fill permit without first conducting a detailed Environmental Impact Statement — a position environmentalists have been advocating for years, but which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers rejected. But in the other case, EPA officials offer more watered-down criticism, and suggest much easier ways for mining to move forward.

lisaonbrown.jpgIn the broad sense, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has instructed her staff to review the flood of permits waiting to be issued by the Corps of Engineers following the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last month. Strictly speaking, Jackson is just telling EPA staffers to do their jobs. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is supposed to review valley fill permits that the Corps proposes to issue, and make sure the Corps — an agency more attuned to moving dirt than saving mountains and streams — is doing a good job.

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Obama speaks on mountaintop removal

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White House photo

“I will tell you that there’s some pretty country up there that’s been torn up pretty good.” 

President Barack Obama

With the flurry today and tonight about EPA’s action on mountaintop removal, I thought Coal Tattoo readers would want to see some recent comments from President Barack Obama himself on the issue.

No … none of the White House press corps asked about it during this evening’s primetime news conference. But apparently some regional reporters based in Washington asked about it during a meeting Monday with the president.

Here’s what James Carroll reported on that in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

The president repeatedly spoke of the promise of new sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, and said he hoped incentives to industry would promote cleaner energy from sources such as coal.

On the subject of coal, Obama was asked for his views on regulating the controversial mining practice of mountaintop removal, in which explosives are used on the tops and sides of mountains to get at underlying coal seams.

While the coal industry sees the extraction method as the most cost-effective way of reaching coal near the surface, environmental groups object that mountaintop removal has produced a legacy of devastation and environmental pollution.

Obama said his administration is reviewing decisions by the Bush administration that eased mine-waste rules governing mountaintop removal.

“This is one of those things where I want science to help lead us,” Obama said. “I will tell you that there’s some pretty country up there that’s been torn up pretty good.

“I will also tell you that the environmental consequences of the runoff from some of these mountains can just be horrendous. … Not taking that into account because of short-term economic concerns, I think, is a mistake. I think we have to balance economic growth with good stewardship of the land God gave us.”

[UPDATED: The Courier-Journal also has a full transcript of that discussion].

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The National Mining Association blasted EPA for “halting mining permits.” West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito warned the Obama administration about not to “block mining permits.”  Coalfield environmentalists praised the federal government’s decision “to deny permits.”

OK. OK. Calm down everybody.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (above, with President Obama) hasn’t denied any permits, and the agency certainly hasn’t issued a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits — or on any kind of mining permits, for that matter.  Industry-friendly changes the Bush administration made to the Clean Water Act fill rule and the Surface Mining Act buffer zone rule are still in effect.

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This just in from Gov. Joe Manchin’s communications director Matt Turner:

Gov. Joe Manchin released this statement this evening about the
Environmental Protection Agency’s letters regarding certain types of
mining:

“After learning about the letters sent today by the EPA regarding
mining, I discussed concerns about the impact of this decision with the
head of our state Department of Environmental Protection. As a result of
those discussions, this evening I spoke with Nancy Sutley, chair of the
White House Council on Environmental Quality. She has been gracious
enough to meet with me tomorrow in Washington to discuss the issues
raised by today’s decision by the EPA.

“I look forward to meeting with her and sharing our concerns and finding
out the intent of this ruling. I believe the interpretation of the
letters may be different than the intent, and I am confident that
reasonable people can come together to find a solution where there might
be differences.

“I will share with them everything our state is doing to meet our
nation’s energy needs and the jobs that are dependent on this industry.
I will do everything I possibly can to fight for every job in West
Virginia.”

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We’ve posted an updated story on today’s big action by EPA on mountaintop removal coal mining on the Gazette’s Web site, and I’ll be blogging more about this later tonight and in the days to come.

That story is here, and here’s the lead:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will more closely scrutinize mountaintop removal permits under a new initiative announced Tuesday by the Obama administration.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson went public with her plans a day after agency officials sent letters that will delay — and could ultimately block — two mountaintop removal permits in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Please share your thoughts on this major development…I’ve had one call in the last half-hour or so asking if the Obama administration has with this action reversed either the Bush administration’s changes to the fill rule or the buffer zone rule. The answer is no. Both of those Bush rules still stand. But clearly, this is not the last we’ll hear from the Obama EPA about mountaintop removal.

The press releases and prepared statements are starting to flow in to EPA’s announced crackdown on mountaintop removal

This came in from Jennifer Chavez, attorney with Earthjustice:

This is a strong signal that the Obama administration is taking the right steps towards recognizing the importance of sound science and the law when it comes to mountaintop removal mining. Today’s announcement and letters from the EPA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demonstrate a fresh perspective on the need to completely review the destructive impact that mountaintop removal mining has on streams and water quality throughout Appalachia. This is a victory for the people of Appalachia and for one of the must fundamental goals of the Clean Water Act: to prevent our entire nation’s rivers, streams and lakes from being used as waste dumps.

 

The EPA has promised to use the best science and follow the letter of the law to review pending mountaintop removal mining permits, and we applaud this monumental decision. We certainly hope that the EPA recognizes what we have known all along: that mountaintop removal mining permanently and completely destroys streams across Appalachia and causes severe harm to water quality in downstream communities. Nearly 30,000 Earthjustice supporters have joined thousands of others in writing to President Obama to fully review the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining, and we are pleased to see that their voices have been heard. While the Obama administration reviews the permits, it is critical that we continue working to protect the lasting American legacy of the mountains and streams in the communities of Appalachia.

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dragline1.jpgHere’s the press release just issued by EPA on its crack down on mountaintop removal:

EPA Acts to Reduce Harmful Impacts from Coal Mining

(Washington, D.C. – March 24, 2009) The United States Environmental Protection Agency has sent two letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining. The letters specifically addressed two new surface coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA also intends to review other requests for mining permits.

“The two letters reflect EPA’s considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams,” said Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests. EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment.”

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The Obama administration today is announcing its plans to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have issued letters to two mining operations, one in West Virginia and one in Kentucky that  threaten to block federal Army Corps of Engineers permits because of the significant impacts of the proposed operations.

In the West Virginia letter, directed at Massey Energy’s Highland Mining Company Reylas Surface Mine in Logan County, EPA explains:

“EPA has expressed its significant concern regarding the impact of the human environment through a lack of avoidance and minimization efforts undertaken for this project, the cumulative  impacts on the watershed, forest and habitat destruction and fragmentation within a globally significant and biologically diverse forest system, and the impairment of downstream water quality.”

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Stopping selenium

With a court-ordered deadline of June 30 fast approaching, Apogee Coal Co. has agreed to spend at least $350,000 to test technology that environmental groups say will cure repeated violations of selenium pollution limits at the company’s sprawling mountaintop removal operations along the Boone-Lincoln County line.

Apogee, a Patriot Coal subsidiary, will also pay a $50,000 civil penalty to the federal government, as a result of a citizen suit brought against the company by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

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U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers isn’t the only federal judge in West Virginia with a mountaintop removal case pending in his courtroom.

jgoodwin.jpgThere’s still a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pending before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin in Charleston.

Under the Clean Water Act, the corps has been approving valley fills through two different kinds of permits: Individual permits and nationwide (also called general or regional permits).

The suit before Chambers concerns  individual permits, or IPs. The case before Goodwin involves nationwide permits, in particular Nationwide Permit 21 for coal-mining operations.

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Mountaintop removal: Back in Chuck’s chambers

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OK, so we weren’t really in U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers’ chambers.  (When he was merely Speaker of the House, he was Chuck; a lifetime appointment makes him Robert C.).

I don’t think all of the lawyers would have fit in there anyway. And some citizens turned out to watch the proceedings too. Besides, the renovated second floor courtroom of the federal building in downtown Huntington was worth showing off.

We’ve already talked about the announcement, such as it was, by the Justice Department this morning that the Obama administration is  “in a state of transition” on regulation of mountaintop removal coal mining. We also went over the coal industry’s response to that announcement.

But a number of readers have asked what the mountaintop removal case was doing back in front of Judge Chambers in the first place … didn’t those appeals court judges over in Richmond, Va., throw out Chambers’ decision?

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None of the coal industry lawyers at today’s federal court hearing in Huntington responded when Obama administration lawyers said they are “in a state of transition” in how the government regulates mountaintop removal.

So, I asked the National Mining Association what they made of the  review of mountaintop removal issues being conducted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in conjuction with EPA and the Corps of Engineers.

Here’s what the e-mail message I got back from NMA spokeswoman Carol Raulston said:

NMA knows of no significant directional change from the Obama Administration on mountaintop mining policies–especially none that might jeopardize 14,000 direct mining jobs in Appalachia.

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Well, Obama administration lawyers didn’t exactly drop a bombshell. But they did confirm in federal court here this morning that a new policy on mountaintop removal is being developed.

What is that policy? They’re not saying yet.

“We are in a state of transition,”  said Cynthia “C.J.” Morris, a Department of Justice lawyer representing the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Morris added that she had “nothing significant to report” about where that transition might take government policies on mountaintop removal.

I guess it’s change you can believe in — but just not change you can know about yet.

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Obama AML plan: Green jobs for the coalfields

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 A reclaimed abandoned coal mine site in Clay County, W.Va.

The question of why Appalachia — a region so rich in valuable coal reserves — remains so poor, despite the coal trains hauling away our mountains ton by ton, is hardly a new one.

But there’s new discussion of it, especially given the nation’s current economic troubles, all of the talk from the Obama administration about “green jobs” and an energy revolution, and the continuing battle over mountaintop removal coal mining.

And, Obama has actually already announced one little-noticed initiative that could be a huge help — if only the coal industry, environmental groups, and regional political leaders would get behind it.

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A modest size blast detonates on Kayford Mountain, March 18, 2009. Photo by Antrim Caskey.

In the midst of all of the anticipation about what President Barack Obama might do about mountaintop removal, I got a pretty important e-mail on the subject. The sender didn’t want to be identified, but I want to pass on what he told me:

I hope you’ll press everyone involved to say with specificity how they think any anti-MTR action by Obama or Congress would play out in real time — pending applications, pending permits, existing permits, regulatory changes, lawsuits/injunctions/takings/impairment of contracts claims, layoffs and shutdowns, coal supply agreements, greater AOC/smaller valley fills, more deep mines(?) — the works.  I know you won’t get many good answers, but at least you’ll be pushing against simplistic views.  Surely some smart people would speak on or off the record about where they think all this could go.

So … think that came from someone in the coal industry? Wrong. This guy has no love for coal mining. But he’s one of the smarter and more thoughtful people I know, and he follows and cares about these issues — and about the future of the coalfields and the people here. And I think the discussion he’s suggesting definitely needs to occur.

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Where does Obama stand on mountaintop removal?

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We may find out a little bit on Monday about what President Barack Obama plans to do about mountaintop removal coal mining.

But what do we already know about his position on the issue?

Let’s review:

Obama has publicly criticized strip mining. His campaign aides said last year he did not support mountaintop removal. But, neither Obama nor anyone speaking for him — as far as I can tell, anyway — ever promised that he would ban the practice. And, Obama has also said coal is — and will remain for some time — an important part of the nation’s energy mix.

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