WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul introduced legislation Thursday designed to force the Environmental Protection Agency to decide more quickly whether to approve or deny permits that mines need to operate under the Clean Water Act.
Dubbed the Mining Jobs Protection Act, the bill gives the EPA 60 days to approve or veto permit applications. If the agency doesn't act within that time, the permit automatically moves forward.
"The EPA has turned the permitting process into a back door means of shutting down coal mines by sitting on permits indefinitely, thus removing any regulatory certainty," McConnell, the minority leader, said on the Senate floor Thursday. "What they're doing is outside the scope of their authority and the law and represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress."
The legislation, which was also sponsored by Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will move to that committee for consideration.
Coal companies say the EPA's extra scrutiny and lengthy review process is cumbersome and oversteps the agency's authority.
"I applaud Senator McConnell and Senator Paul for recognizing that the current direction of the EPA is destabilizing not only our coal industry, but every electricity-dependent job in the commonwealth," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. "The serious concern here is that appointed bureaucrats are holding pending permits to mine coal hostage with no time line for approval, creating greater uncertainty and keeping Kentuckians from going to work."
Environmentalists say the bill is an attempt to undermine the EPA's regulatory efforts and skirt laws designed to keep pollutants out of rivers and streams.
"The EPA is doing its job and enforcing the Clean Water Act, and the coal industry is very upset about it," said Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a non-profit umbrella group for environmental organizations in the state.
The proposed legislation is the latest salvo in a tense back and forth among the coal industry, lawmakers and the EPA.
Last year, lawmakers from coal-producing states and coal miners rallied on Capitol Hill and decried what they see as the agency's overly aggressive regulatory stance under the Obama administration and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's leadership. Last month, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced a similar measure called the EPA Fair Play Act, which the lawmaker said seeks to prevent the agency from going beyond its authority when vetoing mine permits.
"The out-of-control EPA is already costing the people of Kentucky jobs, and their war on coal could cost us even more," Paul said Thursday.
Paul said that he and McConnell "are working to end this abuse by the EPA and stop the Obama administration from killing jobs in Kentucky and other coal-producing states."
During a hearing of the appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Thursday, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, grilled Jackson on the economic impacts of EPA's increased regulation enforcement, permitting backlogs and policies on greenhouse gases.
"I believe EPA is headed in the wrong direction with an aggressive and overzealous regulatory agenda that far exceeds the authority it's been granted," said Rogers, the House Appropriations chairman.
Among other things, he cited "wrong-headed greenhouse gas regulations" and "the retroactive veto of a coal permit that has undergone more than a decade of environmental review."