PIKEVILLE — The federal government would face a deadline to issue or deny surface-mining permits under legislation Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he will file next week.
McConnell said Monday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to act on dozens of proposed permits for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, holding up some for years as coal jobs in the region plummet.
Repeating a familiar theme as he ramps up for a re-election campaign in 2014, McConnell said the EPA’s inaction is part of the Obama Administration’s attack on the coal industry.
“The war on coal waged by this administration is costing Kentucky our jobs, our livelihoods and indeed, our future,” McConnell told a receptive audience gathered in a cavernous repair bay at Whayne Supply Company in Pikeville.
McConnell acknowledged in a later speech to the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Pikeville that it will be hard to get the proposed legislation through the Democrat-led U.S. Senate, but said he is trying to bring attention to the problem. He said Kentucky’s junior senator, Republican Rand Paul of Bowling Green, will co-sponsor the legislation.
Coal production in Eastern Kentucky went down nearly 28 percent in 2012, to the lowest level since the mid-1960s. More than 4,000 miners in the region lost their jobs.
Competition from cheap natural gas was the key reason for that decline in the short run, analysts have said.
But McConnell said federal rules affecting power-plant emissions have also hurt demand for coal.
The administration has put in place or proposed a number of rules to cut emissions from power plants, touting the benefits to public health. Older, coal-fired plants would face expensive retrofitting to comply with the rules.
More than 100 coal-burning plants closed in President Obama’s first term, McConnell said.
Obama and the EPA are easy targets in the state’s eastern coalfield.
As he waited to hear McConnell speak, Blake Foley, a shop technician at Whayne Supply, said he will be happy when Obama is out of office. Burt Williamson, another employee, said he believes EPA’s inaction on surface-mining permits has hurt the region.
“If we could get some more permits and get back to mining, it would be a big help to us,” Williamson said.
In mountaintop mining, companies blast off the upper reach of a mountain to uncover coal seams, then often bury sections of streams in nearby valleys with excess rock. Runoff from mined and filled areas can contain contaminants such as sulfates and heavy metals.
Such mining requires a discharge permit, which McConnell’s proposal would require the EPA to approve or deny within 270 days of the application.
If the EPA failed to act, the permit would be issued under McConnell’s proposal.
The legislation also would make the agency begin the process of deciding whether to approve valley fills within 90 days of receiving an application. They agency would have a year to conduct an environmental assessment, according to a news release from McConnell.
The EPA has held up about three dozen surface-mine permits in Eastern Kentucky since 2010. The state issued the permits, but federal regulators objected, saying conditions the permits imposed on the coal companies would not do an adequate job of protecting water quality.
The federal agency said there is growing scientific evidence that materials draining from surface mines and valley fills in Appalachia hurt water quality and aquatic life. The state has argued the conditions it called for in the permits would protect water quality.
“By playing this game of ‘run out the clock,’ they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs,” McConnell said of the EPA.
R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the state Department for Environmental Protection, said some permits have been pending for well over two years. In addition, the state has not been proposing draft permits for new or expanded surface mining in Eastern Kentucky because of the impasse, Scott said.
Environmentalists have applauded the federal agency’s objections to permits in Kentucky as an overdue move to better control what they see as a destructive form of mining.
It’s not clear what impact the proposal to place a deadline on EPA would have on the coal industry in the near term.
Federal analysts have predicted a continued slide in Central Appalachian coal production for several more years, based on factors that include competitively priced natural gas and new environmental rules coming online.
Already, there are nearly as many surface mines temporarily idled in Pike County as there are active mines, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. That means a good number of mines that already have permits are not producing coal.
However, opportunities to export coal overseas will create more demand for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
“There is a future for coal production in Eastern Kentucky,” Bissett said.