FRANKFORT — Hundreds of people in favor of mountaintop mining in Eastern Kentucky started congregating for a rally in the state Capitol before 5 p.m. Tuesday. While that rally went on, a group of about 75 people opposed to surface mining held a news conference nearby.
The 200 yards separating them might as well have been a thousand miles.
The two camps put their deeply divided views on display as part of the latest chapter in the struggle over mountaintop mining in Kentucky.
The occasion was a hearing in Frankfort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its objections to 36 permits for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky. The hearing started after the partisan events.
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The state approved the permits, but the federal agency's objections have kept them from being issued.
To people who support surface mining, the objections the EPA has raised are part of its "war on coal" that they argue has killed jobs, and threatens to kill more, in Eastern Kentucky, where the industry is vital.
"If the coal companies go out of business up in that area, there won't be nothing left," said Mike Eversole, a bulldozer operator at an Arch Coal surface mine in Perry County, who drove to Frankfort for the pro-coal rally and hearing with his wife, Louise.
Environmentalists, however, welcome the EPA's actions as an overdue effort to rein in what they see as a form of mining that scalps mountains and pollutes the environment and human health.
"The EPA action is the right thing to do," Doug Doerrfeld of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said at the environmentalists' event.
The controversy stems from guidance EPA issued in April 2010 to judge whether permits for mines in the area would protect streams adequately.
Kentucky reviews mine permits, but EPA has an oversight role.
In mountaintop mining, companies blast off the upper reach of a mountain to uncover coal seams, then, typically, put excess rock into nearby valleys. That often buries sections of streams.
Runoff from mined and filled areas can contain contaminants such as sulfates and metals.
EPA officials have said there is growing scientific evidence that such materials draining from surface mines and valley fills in Appalachia hurt water quality and aquatic life.
Among other changes, the federal agency said it would begin using a standard on conductivity — an indicator of the level of potential contaminants in water — in deciding whether to approve surface-mining permits in Central Appalachia.
The EPA began objecting to permits in 2010 that included the same conditions it had let pass earlier, said R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the state Department for Environmental Protection.
Before April 2010, the EPA had never objected to an individual permit for a discharge from an Eastern Kentucky surface mine; since then it has objected to dozens, Scott said at the EPA hearing.
However, companies have been able to get permission to mine under what is called a general permit, which has a different set of standards and accounts for most surface-mine permits in Eastern Kentucky.
Kentucky has allowed 2,500 new and existing mining projects to go forward under general permits since August 2009, Jim Giattina, an EPA official, said at the public hearing. In that same time the state has issued individual permits for 87 surface mining operations.
The state toughened its standards on individual permits in response to EPA's feedback, but the federal agency's requirements have been a moving target, Scott said.
State regulators think the conditions in the 36 permits at issue are adequate to protect the environment, Scott said, but environmentalists argue that's not true.
The state has joined the coal industry in a federal lawsuit arguing the EPA put its new standards in place improperly.
Kentucky officials requested public hearings on the permits. Environmentalists saw it as a way to let pro-coal interests bully the agency, but Scott said the goal was to move the process along.
The state approved some of the permits at issue in the hearings more than 18 months ago.
Several Kentucky lawmakers were harshly critical of the EPA at Tuesday's hearing, drawing noisy cheers from the heavily pro-coal crowd at the Frankfort Convention Center.
"We think you've forgotten who you work for," said state Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville.
Elected officials said the EPA's actions are improper and have imperiled jobs in coal and other industries, as well as the state's relatively low electricity rates.
Several speakers contended that the EPA targeted Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia for onerous coal regulation because President Barack Obama won't win the states in this year's election, while it exempted Appalachian areas in other states the president wants to carry.
Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are home to most of the mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia.
The EPA said in a statement that its only interest is in protecting water quality.
Speakers representing environmental groups urged the federal agency to stick with its objections, saying the state has failed to police surface mining properly in Eastern Kentucky.
Environmentalists argue the industry is crying wolf about the effect of EPA regulations on coal jobs.
The EPA has scheduled two more hearings in Pikeville on Thursday.
After the hearings, the EPA will reaffirm its objections to the permits, modify the objections or withdraw them, allowing the state to issue the permits.
If the EPA continues its objections and the state does not revise the permits, the authority to issue them will pass to the EPA.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the coal industry doesn't expect EPA officials to back off their objections as a result of the hearings.
"I don't know what kind of evidence it would take for them to change their minds," Bissett said.
Environmentalists felt they had to show strong support for the EPA so the agency would not bend to pressure from the state and coal industry.
"What's at stake here is whether they stick with their objections or not," said Alex DeSha, a Kentucky-based organizer for the Sierra Club.