Gene Kitts, senior vice president of mining service for International Coal Group, makes a presentation Thursday at a coal industry forum at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley. Kitter believes the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent scrutiny of mining permits could put thousands of coal industry jobs in jeopardy.

A new review process of all pending coal mining permit applications by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is putting thousands of West Virginia jobs at risk, a coal official said at an industry forum in Beckley Thursday.

“The uncertainty of the process is putting the state’s entire coal industry at risk,” said Gene Kitts, senior vice president of mining service for International Coal Group, a state coal producer.

Kitts was the featured speaker at the event that was free to the public and sponsored by Beaver Coal Co.

On March 24 the EPA sent two letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential significant adverse impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining.

“Who defines significant adverse impacts?” Kitts questioned in his speech. “Because of the absence of mayflies is enough to stop coal mining and lose thousands of jobs?”

Kitts says some have said the EPA is just doing its job, but he thinks it’s more.

“It’s really the EPA versus coal mining,” he said. “It’s getting more serious each day. More than 77,000 direct mining jobs, with 35,000 to 40,000 of those being in West Virginia alone, are now at risk by the EPA’s action. At a time when we are spending billions of taxpayer dollars to create jobs, it is inconceivable that we would be taking actions that rob us of the highest paying jobs in the region.”

The EPA letters specifically addressed two new surface coal mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. EPA also intends to review other requests for mining permits.

“This is estimated to affect between 150 and 200 coal mining operations,” Kitts said.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says the two letters reflect EPA’s considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams.

“I have directed the agency to review other mining permit requests,” Jackson said in a press release. “The EPA will use the best science and follow the letter of the law in ensuring we are protecting our environment.”

Kitts says West Virginia has been mining coal for nearly 200 years and surface mining for at least 80 years.

“The EPA acts as if coal mining was new to West Virginia,” he said.

The EPA’s letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation.

“In April, the EPA issued objection letters, permit denials and even revoked a permit for the first time,” Kitts said. “President Barack Obama’s administration has stepped in to slow the permit application process using the EPA.”

Kitts said there are certain things that must be done now to get a permit approved that were not needed prior to the EPA’s actions.

“It’s impossible for coal mining operations to comply with some of these new conditions,” Kitts said. “And not mining is not an acceptable outcome.”

Kitts said the coal industry is not in competition with renewable energy sources.

“Our nation needs power from all sources, including wind, solar, nuclear, coal and others,” he said. “However, today mining operations in Appalachia provide the coal to generate affordable electricity to 77 million households in the East.”

Many spoke up for the coal mining industry and believe the actions by the EPA will triple the cost of electricity.

“If the coal industry is shut down in West Virginia, then about half the state’s workers will be out of a job,” said Woody Duba, general manager of Beaver Coal. “We must do something now. We must take action now.”

Environmentalists also attended the public meeting and asked several questions about mountaintop mining’s impact on those living near it, the loss of coal mining jobs over the past several years and other health and safety concerns.

“Other industries aren’t criticized for using modern technology to reduce their workforce,” Kitt responded. “The majority of people in West Virginia support and want coal mining. Surface mining, including mountaintop mining, is the safest and most efficient way to mine the coal under review.”

Kitt said the recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision confirmed that activities permitted in the federal Clean Water Act are consistent with provisions of the Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Kitt told the environmentalists that an open debate of the issues is acceptable and needed.

“However, we can’t cut off coal,” he said.

Kitt said the EPA also requested the opportunity to meet with the Army of Engineers and the mining companies seeking the new permits to discuss alternatives that would better protect streams, wetlands, and rivers.

The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.

Kitt says what is so confusing is that the Obama administration has strongly advocated the use of coal to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy and has supported funding for clean coal technologies.

“But you can’t use coal or develop new technology if you can’t produce coal,” he said.

Kitt said it appears the EPA wants to make its own interpretations of the law and the coal mine permitting process.

“The coal industry needs to know the standards up front,” he said. “As I said before, all of this uncertainty is putting the coal industry and thousands of jobs in Appalachia at serious risk. The EPA’s recent effort to clarify the intent of this process has only led to greater confusion for coal mine operators and their employees at a time when clear direction is needed to protect and create jobs.”

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