WASHINGTON — Coal industry advocates and environmentalists converged on Capitol Hill on Thursday at a congressional hearing on the impact of mountaintop removal mining on Appalachian streams and rivers.
The coal industry has long held that this method of mining, which involves blasting the tops off mountains to reveal the underlying seams, is the most economical way of extracting coal.
Environmentalists decry the destruction of Appalachian mountaintops and forests and the coal waste runoff that can seep into the surrounding water supply.
The Obama administration has vowed to reform mountaintop removal mining practices. The EPA has pledged to review mining permits, using "the best science" and following "the letter of the law" — moves that could delay the issuing of mining permits and require revisions to those permits.
However, the Obama administration stopped short of calling for an end to mountaintop removal. Environmentalists and some members of Congress would like to see an outright ban.
That would be a disaster, according to the National Mining Association.
"At a time when we are spending billions of taxpayer dollars to create jobs, it is inconceivable that some in Congress would attempt to destroy some of the highest-paying jobs in American industry," association president and chief executive officer Hal Quinn said in a statement Thursday.
Though activists from across the country wearing T-shirts that read "Friends of Coal" and "I Love Mountains" packed the hallways and the committee hearing room, the sharpest dialogue and tension took place among committee members who hail from coal-producing states and their colleagues.
"There is no denying coal's significance to the culture and economy of Appalachia," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works water and wildlife subcommittee. "However, mountaintop coal mining is a long-term assault on Appalachia's environment, economy, culture, and the health of its citizens."
Cardin and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are sponsoring legislation that would outlaw mountaintop mining. The bipartisan proposal puts them at odds with fellow committee member and the subcommittee's ranking Republican, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who says the legislation is a "monumental disaster" that would result in job losses and higher electricity prices.
"I'm concerned about the infighting among Democrats when it comes to coal," Inhofe said, referring to battles within the Democratic Party over how to best cap greenhouse gas emissions and whether to ban mountaintop removal mining.
After weeks of tense back and forth and internal disputes, House Democrats may be poised to push through historic climate-change legislation in a few days.
The brewing debate over banning mountaintop removal mining could reignite those tensions.
"The administration's decision will bring tighter scrutiny, but it is still important to pass the Cardin-Alexander legislation that would prohibit blowing off the tops of mountains and putting the waste in our streams," said Alexander, a committee member. "Coal is an essential part of our energy future, but it is not necessary to destroy our environment in order to have enough of it."
The battle between environmentalists and mining advocates has been in the news this week.
Earlier this week, West Virginia police arrested more than two dozen people, including NASA climate expert James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah, 94-year old retired West Virginia Rep. Ken Hechler and West Virginia activist Julia "Judy" Bonds for protesting mountaintop removal mining at the Goals Coal plant in Sundial, W.Va.
Environmental activists who supported Obama's candidacy say they are determined to hold him accountable as the administration drafts energy policies.
"The Obama administration is being forced into a political compromise," Hansen wrote in this week's issue of Yale University's "Environment 360" magazine. "It has sacrificed a strong position on mountaintop removal in order to ensure the support of coal-state legislators for a climate bill.
"The political pressures are very real," Hansen wrote. "But this is an approach to coal that defeats the purpose of the administration's larger efforts to fight climate change, a sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate."
More than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity and half the nation's electricity comes from coal.