The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 15, 2009

EPA assures Rahall it’s not out to destroy coal

By Mannix Porterfield

Angst is snowballing in the West Virginia coalfields over the Obama administration’s delay in ruling on surface mine permits, but Rep. Nick Rahall tried to assure miners Thursday there is no covert goal to shut the industry down.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson told Rahall at a hearing her agency supports mining in Appalachia, after he put such a question to her.

“Unequivocally,” she told him, “neither EPA nor I personally have any desire to end coal mining, have any hidden agenda whatsoever, that has to do with coal mining as an industry.”

Rahall, D-W.Va., had asked her point-blank if the EPA was attempting to erase mining through regulation, as Gov. Joe Manchin intimated two weeks ago.

“As you may be aware, some of the more ardent and vocal opponents to what the EPA is doing claim that you want to end all coal mining,” Rahall said.

“Again, for the record, is that the case?”

Hoping to end the gridlock, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, entered the fray Thursday by calling on Jackson to speed up the decision on 79 stalled permits, including 23 in West Virginia.

And Tomblin said he wants swift action.

“It is of the utmost importance that this situation be resolved not in a matter of weeks, but days,” he told the EPA.

“In view of the state of limbo the industry and those who depend upon it seem to be occupied with at this time, it appears to me and a great many others that one of the things you and the EPA could do to graciously help us is to make an expedient decision.”

Rahall advised Jackson at the hearing that concerns abound in his state that her agency is failing to provide clear-cut directions with permits regarding expanded scrutiny to see if they pass muster with the Clean Water Act.

“... there is a fear there are no clear rules of the game by which to seek mining permits,” Rahall said.

Jackson acknowledged the industry needs both clarity and certainty.

Rahall said he plans to maintain an open line of communication with the federal agencies on the delayed permits.

He also reminded the panel that as a freshman congressman in 1977 he crafted the landmark Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which allows for mountaintop mining.

But the holdup has arrived with 1,987 amendments to the Clean Water Act, he noted.

“The situation we face today in the Appalachian coalfields is that the EPA has invoked its authority to, for the lack of a better term, ‘second guess’ the Army Corps of Engineers issuance of section 401 permits,” Rahall said.

As a result, the issue reaches beyond the 79 permits and could impact the future of surface mining, he said.

“In fact,” Rahall said, “many of my constitutions believe that the future of coal — all coal — is at stake.

“There is a great deal of frustration and concern in the Appalachian coalfields as a result of the current review. I have to say that I share that concern.”

State Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, launched a new Web site, www.supportwvcoal. com, seeking 15,000 people to sign an online petition to be sent to EPA, asking it to move forward with the permits.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com