Hundreds turn out for EPA mountaintop removal hearing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Several hundred coal industry supporters on Tuesday evening objected to the Obama administration's plan to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, urging federal regulators to back off a threatened veto of the permit for a huge mine in Logan County.
Coal miners and their families, along with other industry employees, supporters and political leaders, packed a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing held as part of EPA's review of whether to block Arch Coal Inc.'s Spruce No. 1 Mine.
The industry front group FACES of Coal hosted a rally in the Charleston Civic Center's main arena just prior to the EPA hearing, which was held in another theater in the same building.
Supporters of the permit complained that EPA was wrong to step in after a mining permit was already issued, and that such an unusual step means no permit ever issued is safe from being later rescinded.
"EPA wants to take the permit away for what seem like political reasons, not scientific reasons," said John McDaniel, a top Arch Coal engineer who worked on the Spruce Mine permit for more than a decade.
Coal industry officials from around the region warned that the Spruce Mine was just the start of the Obama administration's crackdown, complaining most vocally about a new set of water quality guidelines aimed at tackling increased electrical conductivity pollution that EPA believes is impairing waters downstream from large-scale surface mines.
A parade of miners and their families, along with mine vendors -- companies that provide coal companies everything from heavy equipment to tires and electrical supplies -- took the podium in the 3 1/2-hour hearing.
"This is our livelihood and our way of life," said David Lee Wilder Jr., a surface miner from Pike County, Ky. "This is all we know."
The Obama administration has promised "unprecedented steps" to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal, a practice that scientists have concluded is causing "pervasive and irreversible" damage to the region's environment.
In a March announcement of its proposed veto of the Spruce Mine, EPA officials detailed their concerns about the broad-ranging negative impacts of mountaintop removal -- from the burial of streams and downstream pollution to the destruction of forests and studies linking living near mining operations to premature death among Appalachian residents. Environmental groups have offered mixed reviews of the administrations actions to date, having hoped for an all-out ban on mountaintop removal.
"We're looking at this as a test of whether EPA will stand behind what they've been saying," said Bill Price, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. "The coal industry has been unable to prove it can do this type of mining without extreme impacts on the environment and the communities nearby."
Marilyn Mullens, a Boone County native who described herself as a mother and a military veteran, said she believes there is plenty of evidence that mountaintop removal is harming coalfield residents.
"I've heard a lot about jobs and coal miners, and I appreciate that," Mullens said. "But what are we going to do when the entire Earth becomes so polluted that there's no going back?"
Tuesday's hearing was far more orderly than an October session run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At that event, mining supporters yelled and jeered repeatedly whenever any mountaintop removal critics or opponents attempted to speak.
EPA officials had arranged for additional uniformed police officers, as well as some plain-clothes agents, and government contractors who actually ran the proceedings warned that anyone who disrupted other speakers would be removed from the hearing.
Organizers had set up the room to seat 1,000 people, but perhaps half that number attended, officials said. While the event was clearly dominated by industry speakers, both sides said privately the turnout was lower than they expected.
The hearing also included plenty of politics. Among those who spoke were U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes Logan County, and his Republican challenger, former state Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard.
Rahall issued a statement that said, "Pursuing this course will have a chilling effect on the coal industry in West Virginia and the Appalachian region.
"It sends a message to investors that no permit is ever assured and that money they might be willing to put into similar coal mining operations and coal jobs is nothing more than a high-risk bet," Rahall said.
Maynard issued his own statement that said, "West Virginia coal miners deserve a fair, common-sense permitting process. The EPA has changed the rules mid-stream on our miners, and I don't see how anyone could think that is fair."
In mountaintop removal, coal operators use explosives to blast off entire hilltops and uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and dirt is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.
The Spruce Mine has been at the center of the debate over mountaintop removal since the issue first began to heat up back in the late 1990s.
At the time, the operation was proposed as a 3,113-acre mine that would bury more than 10 miles of streams in the Pigeonroost Hollow area near Blair. Arch Coal had proposed the operation as a continuation of its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal operation.
U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II blocked that version of the permit, prompting Arch Coal to close Dal-Tex and lay off more than 300 United Mine Workers members who worked there. Since then, Arch continued to seek the permit but shifted it to its non-union Mingo Logan Coal Co. arm.
At issue now is a Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. Under Section 404 of that law, the corps generally handles such requests for permits to bury streams. But, EPA has broad authority to veto corps decisions if it believes the environmental impacts are too great.
In January 2007, the corps issued the latest version of a slightly scaled back version of the Spruce Mine, after completing a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement on the project.
The new permit covered nearly 2,300 acres and would bury more than 7 miles of streams. Eventually, the operation could produce an average of 2.7 million tons of coal annually over 15 years and employ about 250 workers. At the time it was issued, the Spruce Mine was the largest single strip-mining permit ever issued in West Virginia.
Soon after the corps action, environmental groups sought to have U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers block the permit. The Spruce Mine was not among those halted by a March 2007 ruling by Chambers or directly affected by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning Chambers.
The environmental group complaints about the Spruce Mine have never been heard, and in the meantime, the operation -- with environmentalists' approval -- has been conducted very limited mining. During the first three months of this year, the mine produced just 132,000 tons of coal with 19 employees, according to federal records.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.