EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky

THE first of two public hearings regarding the US Environmental Protection Agency’s objections to three dozen mining permits for new mines or expansions in eastern Kentucky has begun at the Frankfort Convention Center and coal advocates have wasted no time in making their feelings on the issue known.
EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky EPA permit hearings kick off in Kentucky

Mitch McConnell

Donna Schmidt

Pro-coal groups and environmentalists alike descended on the site ahead of the evening hearing on Tuesday, with the former arguing the hold-up kept production and jobs suspended in a wavering economy and the latter claiming the proposed mining operations would result in pollution.

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce public affairs director Chad Harpole said the EPA’s objections to the permits prevented the issuance of all permits for surface mining activities for more than two years.

“The economic impact to Kentucky is staggering – 19 recent EPA objections are estimated to cost Kentucky 3800 jobs and more than $US123 million in coal severance taxes,” he said.

At a floor speech on Tuesday afternoon in Washington, just hours before the start of the first hearing, Republican US senator for Kentucky Mitch McConnell said he couldn’t attend the meetings because of the Congress session but did not hold back on his feelings that he and his constituents were “under siege” from the regulatory agenda of US President Barack Obama’s administration “and the EPA is the worst offender”

“Perhaps the clearest example of this administration’s regulatory assault is its war on coal,” he said.

“Since being sworn in, President Obama’s EPA has set out to circumvent the will of Congress and the American people by turning the already cumbersome mine permitting process into a back-door means of shutting down coal mines.”

He said 18,000 individuals in Kentucky worked in coal mining and another 200,000 more, such as transportation workers, realtors and farmers, were indirectly impacted by the coal industry and relied on it for their jobs.

Economically, coal equates to $3.5 billion of out-of-state money annually and the industry pays more than $1 billion in direct wages every year.

“Attacking an industry so important to Kentucky will only succeed in putting people out of work, impeding future job growth and increasing energy prices,” McConnell said.

“A former senior EPA official under the Obama administration recently summed up the regulatory philosophy of the agency with respect to those working in the coal business by saying it wants to ‘crucify’ them.

“With this radical environmental/anti-coal agenda, it is no wonder the administration has failed to answer the American people’s call for greater domestic energy production.

“The real-world impact of their fantasy-world energy policy is that people are losing their jobs and energy prices will rise even further.”

He called for the Obama administration to change its ways.

“It is high time [it] stopped treating the Kentucky coal industry as the problem and start recognizing that it has been and will continue to be part of the solution,” he said.

Kentucky Senator and House Subcommittee on Energy and Power chairman Ed Whitfield, who has recently been a very vocal critic of the EPA on this issue as well as the EPA’s moves on greenhouse gas emissions limitations, said he had been “astounded and outraged” by the agency’s actions during its all-out “war on coal”

“Although EPA has not ‘crucified’ the Kentucky coal industry yet, it has effectively strangled the industry by blocking individual permits for new and expanded surface mines in Kentucky for more than two years. This is unacceptable,” he said.

He referred to the EPA’s interim guidance which led to the agency’s objection of 19 surface mining discharge permits in April 2010, just a month after it reviewed and reapproved the state’s permitting program.

The guidance, Whitfield said, was issued without any intervening change in the law or regulations and without any notice or opportunity for public input.

Since April 1, 2010, no new surface mine or existing mine wishing to expand in eastern Kentucky had received an individual permit.

The regulator said the 36 draft individual national pollutant discharge elimination system permits the EPA rejected since 2009 by filing a “specific objection” under authority of the Clean Water Act each required a public hearing but it had taken one-and-a-half years for this week’s hearings to come to fruition.

“Obviously, EPA sees this more as a burden than a priority,” Whitfield said.

He said the EPA’s actions to stifle the Kentucky coal industry didn’t just affect miners but was a “direct hit” to the entire state’s economy.

“At a time of high unemployment rates, especially in some counties in Kentucky where unemployment remains at more than 10 per cent, the EPA should be working with coal states to create and retain jobs, not stop economic growth and directly be responsible for miners losing their jobs,” he said.

Unfortunately, the issue goes well beyond Kentucky.

A Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works minority report in 2010 revealed the EPA had at that time blocked action on 190 coal mining permits, which the senator called an “alarming” threat to coal communities across the US.

“The report found ‘roughly one in every four coal mining jobs in the Appalachian region will be at risk of elimination’ and ‘81 small businesses will lose significant income and will be at risk of bankruptcy and over two years of America’s coal supply will be in jeopardy’,” Whitfield said.

“To those working in and around America’s coalfields – or, more precisely, those who once worked there – this is downright hostile and insulting.”

The second EPA hearing will be held on Thursday at the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville.

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