CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Obama administration's decision to hold coal mining permits to a high environmental standard has struck economic fear in Appalachia, where mining — including the kind of mining that blows up mountaintops — has been a shield against hard times afflicting the rest of the nation.
On Tuesday, the EPA announced it will take a closer look at 150 to 200 coal mine permit applications under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. EPA singled out two proposed surface mines in West Virginia and one in Kentucky as a start.
In a break from Bush administration policies, EPA is asserting its authority under the federal Clean Water Act to scrutinize plans to dump mine waste into streams and wetlands.
Thousands of jobs threatened?
The National Mining Association estimates EPA's reviews could threaten 77,500 coal mining jobs and 385 million tons of annual production in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, Ohio and the Illinois Basin.
But environmentalists see EPA's decision as an opportunity to end mountaintop removal mining and the region's dependency on coal, and to spark new jobs by developing renewable energy sources.
Mountaintop removal mining is an efficient but destructive practice where ridgetops are blown up to expose multiple coal seams. Tons of rock, dirt and debris are typically dumped in fills that bury valleys and streams.
Destroying the mountains "also destroys the economic potential of Appalachia," said Matthew Wasson of North Carolina-based Appalachian Voices. "This decision rekindles hope for a new economy in Appalachia built around green jobs and renewable energy."
Balance between environment and economy
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin met with White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday to clarify EPA's intentions.
"I told them we are looking for a balance between the environment and the economy, and they assured me that they will work with us to find that balance," the Democratic governor said in a prepared statement. Manchin said state officials would meet with EPA and coal companies to seek agreements on the applications.
West Virginia is the nation's second largest coal producer and mine operators like to say coal keeps the lights on. More than 90 percent of the state's electricity and about half of the nation's comes from burning coal.
Coal helps keep West Virginia state government in business.
Soaring coal prices helped prevent deficits
Despite its long history of poverty, West Virginia has largely avoided the budget deficits facing other states because of soaring coal prices that exceeded $120 a ton last year. Coal prices are now declining, but state budget planners still predict total severance tax collections will surpass $400 million this year. The state is expected to receive $320 million of that, or about 8 percent of West Virginia's total general revenue collections.
Elsewhere in Appalachia, Kentucky and Virginia — which are less dependent on energy production — haven't fared as well. Both have been dealing with large budget deficits.
Surface mining's importance has increased
Of the estimated 550 mines in West Virginia, 44 percent are surface mines. The importance of surface mining has increased in recent decades as thick underground seams have been mined out. Rock and dirt not used to reclaim the mines are dumped in valley fills.
"There isn't very much coal production that can be done in a state without a valley fill," said Randy Huffman, secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.
Rory McIlmoil, an activist with West Virginia's Coal River Mountain Watch, said environmentalists now have at least a six-month window to strengthen arguments for the creation of green jobs in alternative energy industries.
Restoring former mine lands, building wind farms and developing sustainable forestry jobs are all part of the solution — and all jobs that strip miners can be trained to take, McIlmoil said.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor predicts economic devastation for the eastern half of his state, the nation's third-largest coal producer behind Wyoming and West Virginia.
"We would lose half our production in east Kentucky," Caylor said. That adds up to more than 46 million tons from mines that employ more than 6,000 miners earning $354 million in direct wages.
Kentucky's Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he too is seeking to clarify EPA's intentions so permits could be reviewed and issued more quickly.
Retired underground coal miner Chuck Nelson said coal mining and environmental protection are not an either-or proposition.
"We worked underground before mountaintop removal. We had 68,000 coal miners in West Virginia, and that was in 1977," said Nelson, 53, a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "They don't have to blow the mountaintops off and destroy the communities to get the coal."
Industry bracing for tougher standards
The coal industry has been bracing for tougher permitting standards since March 2007 when a federal judge in West Virginia ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn't done enough to determine if valley fills would damage water resources downstream. The ruling was later overturned.
Mountaintop mining became a topic of debate during last year's presidential elections when both candidates said they opposed the practice. John McCain said he would ban it. Then-candidate Barack Obama said he had concerns but stopped short of calling for a ban.
Industry executives have consistently told Wall Street that opening new underground mines and other actions would largely stave off production problems until 2010. And they've insisted mountaintop mining will continue in the region, even if it takes more time and money to get permits — and raises the price of coal and electricity.
Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., moved Wednesday to end the practice. Their Appalachia Restoration Act on Wednesday that would amend the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining wastes from filling streams.
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