WASHINGTON — Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., calls tougher rules on the coal industry a “power grab” by federal mining regulators who want more leverage over states.

He and other senators grilled the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for more than an hour Wednesday over a package of rules that include closer monitoring of streams near coal mines.

The proposed rules would further strangle a struggling industry, several senators argued, by deepening the loss of jobs and tax revenue in coal-dependent states, especially Kentucky and West Virginia.

“We’ve already lost tens of thousands of jobs. We have to be careful not to regulate out of existence one of the most important energy sources of this country,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., at the hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is the committee’s chairman.

Democratic senators and an Appalachian environmental group, however, say the rules are needed to protect water resources and the health of residents in coal-producing areas.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, of California, said it’s ironic that rules intended to protect residents and water quality are facing opposition as a scandal unfolds in Flint, Mich., over lead levels in the city’s drinking water.

“Don’t you think people have the right to know what’s in their water?” she said.

Joseph Pizarchik, director of the surface mining office, said a 1977 law, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, has not ended coal pollution, as intended.

The agency is trying to fill gaps in the Clean Water Act and other laws, he added.

Inhofe said that amounts to “an illegal federal takeover,” though Senate Republicans haven’t said what action they plan to take.

Inhofe and the Kentucky Coal Association coal argue that the 1977 law prohibits the Office of Surface Mining from passing rules that conflict with the Clean Water Act and other laws.

States have the power to enforce Clean Water regulations, but Inhofe said the proposed rules give the federal government power to override state decisions.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife, for example, could hold up mining permits to protect species being considered as potentially endangered. That expands the scope of the Endangered Species Act, Inhofe and others argue, beyond protecting those already designated as endangered.

However, Sen. Edward Markley, D-Mass., quoted from a portion of the 39-year-old surface-mining law that calls on regulators “‘to protect society and environment from the affects of surface mining.’”

He asked if the agency would be failing its duties, and could face lawsuits, by not implementing the stronger rules.

Pizarchik agreed and said an update of the law is necessary to reflect greater knowledge of mining’s effects.

The Congressional Research Service has reported that the impacts of the rules would cost the coal industry millions of dollars per year, driving up coal prices. That would ultimately drive down production, cost jobs and cost states tax revenue, it said.

The rules, which industry lobbyists expect to be finished in the next few months, come amid already steep declines in mining activity. Kentucky officials reported Monday that production there fell last year to its lowest point since 1954.

“President Obama should shoulder some of the blame for the onset of environmental regulations during his watch,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told reporters during a Wednesday briefing.

Rogers announced a bill that would release $1 billion for economic development projects at abandoned mine sites over five years. Kentucky would receive $200 million annually beginning next year.

The debate over proposed rules is pitting concerns over the loss of jobs with those regarding health and the environment.

Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, an environmental group, said studies have shown declining life expectancy in the five biggest Appalachian coal-producing counties — despite increases nationally.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked Pizarchik about the cost of doing nothing during Wednesday’s hearing.

“I don’t know how to put a value on that if a life has been shortened,” he said.

— Email: kmurakami@cnhi.com

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