Just because coal is an inanimate object doesn’t mean President Obama’s war on coal avoids human casualties. I witnessed the collateral damage to coal-dependent communities on Tuesday at the Charleston Civic Center in West Virginia, where hundreds of people gathered to demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spare their livelihoods.
In Mr. Obama’s war on coal, the most intensive front has been waged against a particular kind of mining, known as mountain-top removal (MTR). It involves blowing off the top of mountains to get at the underlying coal seams, and it is essential for the Appalachian coal industry’s competitiveness vis-a-vis growing production west of the Mississippi. But it is anathema to environmentalists, a major constituency within the president’s Democratic Party.
There can be little doubt that the president’s assault on MTR is politically founded. Shortly after he took office, Appalachian coal producers won a major federal appeals court case, which allowed scores of pending MTR permits to proceed. Mr. Obama’s first reaction was to try to shut down MTR using the Department of the Interior, but a judge objected. Stymied by the law, Mr. Obama switched to his backup plan and unleashed the EPA.
Discharge from MTR operations has long been regulated under the Clean Water Act by the EPA, states and the Army Corps of Engineers, so there was an existing body of accepted standards and practices when Mr. Obama took office. As such, the EPA had to engineer an altogether new rationale for regulation. It came up with a doozy: The EPA is claiming that the states’ interpretation of “water quality” insufficiently accounts for an insect that isn’t even an endangered species.
There are only a handful of scientific studies on the ecological impacts of MTR, and the evidence indicates that the practice affects insects downstream by favoring some species at the expense of others. That is, the number of species doesn’t necessarily change, it’s only reshuffled. To state officials in Appalachia, this is an acceptable impact. The EPA, however, says vulnerable species must be protected at the expense of coal miners.
The EPA’s new definition of water quality is so stringent that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson conceded it would outlaw future MTR operations. Worse still, the EPA also is going after existing permits. In March, the EPA announced it would pursue a veto of the Clean Water Act permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va. It’s the first time the EPA has used this authority to revoke a permit that already has been issued.
On Tuesday, the EPA held a field hearing on its proposed veto in Charleston, and more than 800 people attended, including virtually every political leader in the state. Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, declared that he’s “never been so upset about something that is so unjust.” State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and House of Delegates Majority Leader Brent Boggs noted that both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the EPA to allow the Spruce Mine permit and thereby prevent the loss of 250 mining jobs paying $62,000 apiece.
Of course, coal miners also testified before the EPA, but so did a number of entrepreneurs whose businesses depend on the coal industry. The local community also was well-represented. After noting that property taxes from coal mines contribute more than $17 million annually, Logan County School Superintendent Wilma Zigmond concluded, “Coal keeps the lights on and our schools running.” Diana Kish, a fourth-generation resident of Logan County, said simply of the coal industry, “They help us.”
To be sure, there were testimonials in favor of the EPA veto, but they were far outnumbered, and nary a one claimed to have been directly harmed, unlike each testimony protesting the EPA’s actions.
The political impetus for the EPA’s crackdown on MTR comes from left-coast environmentalists, for whom it’s easy to demonize coal in the abstract. In Charleston, however, I saw that the war on coal has very tangible human consequences. No matter how one feels about coal, surely we can all agree that livelihoods should trump bugs.
William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.