PIKEVILLE — The federal government would face a deadline to issue or deny surface-mining permits under legislation Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell plans to file next week.
McConnell said Monday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to act on dozens of proposed permits for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, holding up some for years as coal jobs in the region plummet.
Repeating a familiar theme as he ramped up for a re-election campaign in 2014, Kentucky's senior senator said the EPA's inaction is part of the Obama administration's attack on the coal industry.
"The war on coal waged by this administration is costing Kentucky our jobs, our livelihoods and indeed, our future," McConnell told a receptive audience gathered in a cavernous repair bay at Whayne Supply Co. in Pikeville.
McConnell acknowledged in a speech to the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Pikeville later in the day that it would be hard to get the proposed legislation through the Democratic-led Senate, but he said he was trying to bring attention to the problem. He said Kentucky's junior senator, Republican Rand Paul of Bowling Green, would co-sponsor the bill.
Coal production in Eastern Kentucky fell nearly 28 percent in 2012, to the lowest level since the mid-1960s. More than 4,000 miners in the region lost their jobs.
Competition from cheap natural gas was the key reason for that decline in the short run, analysts have said.
But McConnell said federal rules affecting power-plant emissions also have hurt demand for coal.
The administration has put in place or proposed a number of rules to cut emissions from power plants, touting the benefits to public health. Older, coal-fired plants would face expensive retrofitting to comply with the rules.
More than 100 coal-burning plants closed during President Barack Obama's first term, McConnell said.
Obama and the EPA are easy targets in the state's eastern coalfields.
As he waited to hear McConnell speak, Blake Foley, a shop technician at Whayne Supply, said he would be happy when Obama was out of office. Burt Williamson, another employee, said he thought the EPA's inaction on surface-mining permits had hurt the region.
"If we could get some more permits and get back to mining, it would be a big help to us," Williamson said.
In mountaintop mining, companies blast off the upper reach of a mountain to uncover coal seams, then often bury sections of streams in nearby valleys with excess rock. Runoff from mined and filled areas can contain contaminants such as sulfates and heavy metals.
Such mining requires a discharge permit, which McConnell's proposal would require the EPA to approve or deny within 270 days of the application.
If the EPA failed to act, the permit would be issued, McConnell's proposal says.
The legislation also would make the agency begin the process of deciding whether to approve valley fills within 90 days of receiving an application. The agency would have a year to conduct an environmental assessment, according to a news release from McConnell.
The EPA has held up about three dozen surface-mine permits in Eastern Kentucky since 2010. The state issued the permits, but federal regulators objected, saying conditions the permits imposed on the coal companies would be inadequate to protect water quality.
The federal agency said there was growing scientific evidence that materials draining from surface mines and valley fills in Appalachia hurt water quality and aquatic life. The state has argued the conditions it called for in the permits would protect water quality.
"By playing this game of 'run out the clock,' they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs," McConnell said of the EPA.
R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the state Department for Environmental Protection, said some permits have been pending for well more than two years. In addition, the state has not been proposing draft permits for new or expanded surface mining in Eastern Kentucky because of the impasse, Scott said.
Environmentalists have applauded the federal agency's objections to permits in Kentucky as an overdue move to better control what they see as a destructive form of mining.
It's not clear what effect the proposal to place a deadline on the EPA would have on the coal industry in the near term.
Federal analysts have predicted a continued slide in Central Appalachian coal production for several more years, based on factors that include competitively priced natural gas and new environmental rules that will be taking effect.
Already, there are almost as many surface mines temporarily idled in Pike County as there are active mines, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. That means a lot of mines that have permits are not producing coal.
However, opportunities to export coal overseas will create more demand for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
"There is a future for coal production in Eastern Kentucky," Bissett said.