Senators seek to curb EPA power

Less negotiation time could backfire

March 10, 2011 

As Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell accused the Environmental Protection Agency of shutting down the coal business, the coal industry and EPA were doing business.

CONSOL of Kentucky agreed to shrink a proposed strip-mine in West Virginia from 57 acres to 19 acres.

In return, the EPA approved the mining permit which had been held up by a review that McConnell declared "outside the scope" of the EPA's authority.

The purpose of EPA reviews under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is to protect America's streams and rivers from pollution. If that's outside the agency's scope of authority, we might as well not have an EPA, which is probably exactly what McConnell and Paul have in mind.

The smaller mine will produce 2.77 million tons of coal rather than 2.85 million tons of coal.

This 4 percent sacrifice in production buys a nearly 76 percent reduction in stream impacts (from 3,626 feet to 871 feet) while reducing the land to be blasted and bulldozed by 66 percent.

This is one of several mining permits recently approved by the EPA after coal companies agreed to reduce the mining's footprint and the extent of stream burial.

It's true this level of EPA scrutiny is new to the coal industry, but that's not because EPA is exceeding its authority. It's because EPA is finally doing its job.

And not a minute too soon. The EPA is about the only thing that's standing in the way of the coal industry ruining the water supply of the historic Kentucky mining towns of Benham and Lynch.

McConnell and Paul are sponsoring a bill that would give the EPA two months to approve or reject mining permits. Theirs is one of a number of proposals in Congress and coal-state legislatures pressuring the EPA to restore the coal industry's blank check.

The McConnell-Paul strategy could backfire. For one thing, without the time to negotiate with industry to reduce and mitigate a permit's impacts, the EPA would probably reject more permits outright.

Also, McConnell's and Paul's demand of "all or nothing" fuels the public perception that there is no such thing as responsible strip-mining. More people will become convinced that the industry and its friends in high places refuse to even try to do less damage.

Strip-mining in Appalachia accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. coal production, and a lot of strip-mined Appalachian coal now goes to China to make steel.

Most Americans would consider saving mountains and headwater streams a fair trade for that relatively small amount of coal.

Take away EPA's ability to negotiate with the industry to lessen its damage, and demands will only grow to outlaw surface mining in Kentucky and West Virginia altogether.

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