Politics & Government

Hearing in Lexington on proposed tougher federal mining standards reveals deep divisions

It didn't take long for sharp divisions to emerge at a public meeting Thursday on proposed tougher federal mining standards aimed at protecting streams.

State Attorney General Jack Conway, the first of dozens of people who spoke on the rule, said it would drive up mining costs and kill jobs.

"The impacts of this over-reaching rule on our economy would be crushing," said Conway, who urged federal regulators to reconsider.

As he left the meeting room, JoAnn Schwartz, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth who was upset with Conway's position, buttonholed the Democratic candidate for governor and asked him to return the $100 contribution she gave him.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining hosted the meeting to take comments on its proposed rule, which includes some of the most significant changes in mining standards in decades.

The rule would impose tougher standards on permits for both surface and underground mines.

For instance, it would require coal companies to do more assessment of water quality before mining, so that the information could be used to measure damage to water; toughen language aimed at preventing impairment of streams outside the permit area; increase water monitoring; bring new reclamation standards; and change requirements on creating valley fills.

Companies create those fills to hold excess rock and dirt left behind from mining operations, often burying stream sections.

The coal industry strongly opposes the rule, arguing it is unnecessary; that it would render some coal reserves unrecoverable; and that it would add to an already onerous regulatory burden when many coal companies are suffering.

Industry officials and politicians told OSM at the meeting that the agency has not given people enough time to analyze or comment on the rule, but that it was clear the proposal would hamstring surface and underground mining and wipe out jobs.

"It will cripple the coal-mining industry," said Josh Phillips, a fourth-generation miner from Harlan County who now works in southern Indiana.

An OSM analysis said it would cost the industry $54 million a year nationwide to comply with the rules.

OSM said the rules would curtail coal production, but by less than 1 percent in Appalachia.

The changes would wipe out jobs in coal production but boost jobs for work needed to comply with the rules by about an equal amount nationwide, the agency estimated.

However, job losses would be greater in Appalachia, the agency said, averaging a drop of 210 a year in coal production from 2020 to 2040, with an increase of only 120 a year in compliance.

Industry officials scoffed at that projection, saying an analysis of an earlier, less ambitious rule projected greater job cuts.

For environmentalists, tougher rules to protect streams — and enforcement of rules — is long overdue.

They have long complained that regulators have not done enough to reduce the impact of surface mining, routinely allowing companies to mine through or bury streams, for instance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in 2010 that mining had buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia since 1992.

Representatives of the Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and others told OSM Thursday that the proposed rule is a step toward greater protection.

However, environmentalists said the rule needs to do even more. For instance, it should require monitoring of runoff from surface mines — which can contain contaminants — at the discharge; make clear that citizens can still sue to force compliance with the law; and keep a 100-foot buffer zone around streams to prevent mining through them or burying them under waste, environmental groups said.

And Hank Graddy, an attorney who prepared comments on the rule for the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club, said regulators should diligently enforce the provisions.

"We have a terrible history of nice words on paper and failure to implement," Graddy said.

The Lexington meeting was the second of six OSM has scheduled to take comments on the rule.

The agency said the rule would result in improved quality in more than 6,100 miles of streams from 2010 to 2040. The agency said on its website the rule would go into effect in Kentucky in 2020 if adopted. However, the coal industry will sue to try to block the rule if the agency finalizes it in the current form.

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