Congressional Republicans are seeking to block an imminent rule protecting Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal mining, as opponents of the controversial practice say the mines are getting closer to communities and harming people’s health.
The White House is expected to announce a stricter rule for the disposal of mountaintop-removal mining waste into streams. Some Republicans in Congress are describing the move as the latest campaign in the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”
The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which has jurisdiction over mining, has been holding hearings and calling the rule a job killer. The chairman, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., backs a measure by West Virginia Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, which would block the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining from implementing the rule, calling for a study within two years, then a year of review, before any new stream protections.
By that point there would be a new president in the White House and different leadership at the Office of Surface Mining that could be friendlier to the coal industry.
“Should this stream buffer rule come to pass it would have a tremendous impact on further reducing mining in Kentucky,” Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in an interview.
Michael Hendryx, a health science professor at Indiana University, said in an interview that blocking the rule would force people living near the mines to keep suffering.
“They’re going to continue to have higher rates of disease and premature death,” said Hendryx. “There is plenty of solid evidence that mountaintop removal mining is done in a way that’s not responsible for the environment or public health.”
Hendryx, along with other scientists, has published more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on the health impacts. Other research on the mining practice includes last year’s U.S. Geological Survey findings that Appalachian streams impacted by mountaintop mining have less than half as many fish species and about a third as many fish as other streams.
“People who live in mountaintop removal communities compared to others have higher rates of lung disease, heart disease, cancer, birth defects and other types of health problems,” Hendryx said.
Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association called Hendryx biased and disputed his research. The coal company Alpha Natural Resources has asked the West Virginia Supreme Court for documents related to the preparation of Hendryx’s papers when he was at West Virginia University and copies of any correspondence with environmental groups.
Meanwhile, the environmental group Appalachian Voices has released maps based on satellite data showing the mining coming closer to communities, a finding questioned by industry.
The group said it’s hoping the new Obama administration rule will stop the widespread practice of states giving waivers to allow mining activity and waste dumping within 100 feet of streams.
“What we would like to see is a true buffer zone around all streams that cannot be infringed,” said Thom Kay, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices.
Opponents of the upcoming Obama administration rule said the impact goes beyond the mountaintops, with West Virginia Rep. Mooney asserting at a congressional hearing last week that the “stream protection rule is intentionally designed to shut down all surface mining.” The Kentucky Coal Association’s Bissett said that, while federally designated mountaintop mining has diminished, other forms of surface coal mining still make up half the activity in Eastern Kentucky.
National Mining Association president Hal Quinn argued in testimony to Congress last week that the federal government has shown no need to act, and that even the Office of Surface Mining’s own analysis of an earlier version of the rule said it would cost 7,000 jobs. Industry backers accuse the agency of manipulating job loss estimates and not consulting with the states.
The Obama administration is not providing details on the upcoming rule, which is expected to be released in June.
Office of Surface Mining Director Joseph Pizarchik recently told Congress that the rule would be a “wash” in terms of job loss, with only a couple hundred jobs gained or lost as a result.