Overturned rule was unfair, unscientific attack on coal

President Donald Trump, joined by coal miners and members of Congress, signed on Thursday a resolution overturning the recently enacted Stream Protection Rule.
President Donald Trump, joined by coal miners and members of Congress, signed on Thursday a resolution overturning the recently enacted Stream Protection Rule. Associated Press

Reporting and commentary on the recently overturned Stream Protection Rule has been less than accurate. It is often portrayed as a rule to prohibit the dumping of waste in streams and many accounts seem to imply there is no current regulation of mining.

The rule morphed into much more than dealing with streams and addressed things that the Office of Surface Mining had never identified as problems.

The majority of provisions in the proposed rule were simply a way to stop coal mining, not only surface mining but underground mining.

The rule-making process was one of the most disingenuous and dishonest efforts put forward by a government agency. I have standing to make such comments since I was involved from 2010 until recent months.

I was one of a group of professionals hired by OSM to help justify their rule, working on an environmental impact statement and regulatory impact analysis. When OSM did not like the science-based conclusions, top officials tried to force the consulting team — engineers, scientists, economists and attorneys; all respected individuals in their fields — to change the results.

Attempting to persuade the group to capitulate, a senior OSM attorney characterized the process best: “It’s not the real world. This is rulemaking.”

The group refused and OSM terminated its contracts. OSM then hired another group of consultants, including one of the previous consultants who was willing to alter analysis and opinions, thus resulting in a dishonest and unprofessional analysis of this proposed rule.

OSM’s promotion campaign illegitimately claimed state governments supported the rule when the majority of states withdrew their cooperation because OSM violated agreements by keeping state governments out of the loop about a rule states are supposed to enforce.

The Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an association of state agencies with mining, hired me to assemble a consulting team to assist their review of the new reports and analysis. This review by engineers, scientists, economists and attorneys and multiple state personnel in the unreasonably short comment period revealed serious technical and scientific flaws, as well as numerous violations of mandated legal processes.

The rule placed tremendous unfunded mandates on states and seriously underestimated impacts on the economy, with no corresponding environmental improvement. Now that it is gone, OSM should return to its original mandate: assisting states in regulating mining to protect the environment — not trying to prohibit mining.

Mining has its share of problems, but proper enforcement of existing law provides proper protections. Our government agencies should have higher standards of accountability, transparency and responsiveness to all citizens, not just those on a preferred stakeholder list.

The rest of the world will be using coal for decades to come. The “war on coal” was real. The Appalachian region was ground zero as evidenced by the devastated economy. It is true that natural gas supply and prices are now more competitive. Recent policies put coal at even greater disadvantage by placing unnecessary and unrealistic requirements on mining and utilization.

It did not have to happen that way. Ironically, a major hope of the region now lies in the economic development of reclaimed mountaintop surface mines. Alternative energies, nuclear and natural gas (which has to have pipelines), all have their place; but abandoning coal will do tremendous harm both to the environment and the economy.

By the way, there is no such thing as renewable energy. Alternatives require massive amounts of mining, many times in other countries. The worldwide environment would be better served if the U.S. continues to improve its coal technology to export to the rest of the world with an “all of the above” energy policy.

J. Steven Gardner is president/CEO of ECSI, LLC an engineering firm in Lexington.