The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 30, 2010

Coal industry shows support for delegate’s regulatory shift

The West Virginia coal industry is getting behind a bill proposed by a freshman West Virginia delegate designed to shift some coal mining regulations away from the federal government.

Newly elected Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, will take office in January with a plan he says will boost jobs in West Virginia. The Intrastate Coal and Use Act proposes that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection should be the issuer of mining permits for companies that only mine for in-state use instead of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association said the EPA has continued to deny issuance of mining permits to the peril of the West Virginia economy.

“Delegate Howell’s legislation presents a creative way of getting around the strangle-hold that the U.S. EPA has on new mining permits here in West Virginia which continues to plague West Virginia's economy and hard-working West Virginians who rely on the coal industry to support their families,” Hamilton said.

The question may be whether the West Virginia Legislature will have the authority to give the WVDEP the power to regulate in-state mining. Hamilton is hopeful that at the least, the move will expose what he sees as unjust action by the EPA.

“Hopefully it will meet appropriate legal and constitutional thresholds,” Hamilton said of the proposed legislation. “Additionally, the mere consideration and deliberation of this legislative measure will place a spotlight on just how arbitrary and dilatory EPA's actions are and have been over the past two years.”

Howell said companies who do not export coal across the state’s borders are not engaged in interstate commerce, and therefore escape the powers granted to federal regulators by the Constitution.

“My bill says if the coal is sold within the borders of West Virginia and never leaves the state — used within the borders — then no interstate commerce exists,” Howell said. “Since the EPA gets its jurisdiction from the interstate commerce clause, then they have no authority to deny those permits under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves those rights to the state not enumerated in the Constitution.”

Howell added that he views himself as a conservationist.

“I believe in protecting the environment, but at the same time I understand we have to use it in the modern world,” Howell said. “My bill states that even though the state is now issuing the permits, they must meet 100 percent of the EPA requirements. There is no lesser requirements for a state permit.”

Currently, Hamilton says, tight EPA regulations can make investors squeamish about possible permit denials or even revocations. 

“If enacted, this legislation will serve to accelerate the permitting of a limited number of mining operations that meet all applicable environmental and water quality standards and hopefully, bring about long-needed predictability and efficiencies to the mine permitting process,” Hamilton said.

Howell said the mines awaiting approval are meeting the requirements for approval, but are still not receiving approval from the EPA.

“I have no doubt that the EPA is purposely blocking these mine permits,” Howell said.

Howell said that because the population center of the East Coast is moving West and South, it’s current location in Pennsylvania may shift into West Virginia after 2010 Census data is released. This is important, he said, because it gives West Virginia another edge in being a major energy supplier for the eastern half of the U.S.

His hope is that the legislation will provide a “secure source” of coal and encourage power companies to locate their operations in the state.

The jobs provided from the denied mines alone, estimated at around 80 statewide, would provide about 500 to 1,000 jobs, Hamilton said. The ripple on the rest of the economy would also be significant, he predicts.

“No industry operates in isolation,” Howell said.

It would not only provide an economic boost to the state, but would also mean cheaper electricity bills for residents.

In addition to backing from West Virginia coal operators, Howell said he feels lawmakers are also behind the bill.

“It’s not a left or right bill, this is simply a put West Virginia to work bill,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you know that a big chunk of the West Virginia economy is coal and it is directly under attack from the EPA.”

A phone call to a press officer at the Region 3: The Mid-Atlantic States office of the EPA, which covers West Virginia and surrounding states, was not returned Wednesday.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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