Govt: New rules would cut thousands of coal jobs

By Tim Huber
AP Business Writer / January 26, 2011

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CHARLESTON, W.Va.—The Obama administration's own experts estimate their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement document says the agency's preferred rules would impose standards for water quality and restrictions on mining methods that would affect the quality or quantity of streams near coal mines. The rules are supposed to replace Bush-era regulations that set up buffer zones around streams and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

The proposal -- part of a draft environmental impact statement -- would affect coal mines from Louisiana to Alaska.

The office, a branch of the Interior Department, estimated that the protections would trim coal production to the point that an estimated 7,000 of the nation's 80,600 coal mining jobs would be lost. Production would decrease or stay flat in 22 states, but climb 15 percent in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Peter Mail, a spokesman for the surface mining reclamation office, said the proposal's aim is "to better strike the balance between protecting the public and the environment while providing for viable coal mining."

Mali said the document is the first working draft that was shared with state agencies, which are giving their comments on it. Comments also were received from environmentalists, industry, labor and others at meetings held across the country.

"Input received from the public will help shape the final regulatory refinements that will better protect streams and the public while helping meet America's energy needs," Mali said.

The National Mining Association blasted the proposal, saying the federal agency is vastly underestimating the economic impact.

"OSM's preferred alternative will destroy tens of thousands of coal-related jobs across the country from Appalachia to Alaska and Illinois to Texas with no demonstrated benefit to the environment," the trade group said in a statement. "OSM's own analysis provides a very conservative estimate of jobs that will be eliminated, incomes that will be lost and state revenues that will be foregone at both surface and underground coal mining operations."

The agency has submitted the proposal to several coal producing states for feedback before it releases proposed regulations by the end of February.

The states aren't happy with what they've seen.

They blasted the proposal as "nonsensical and difficult to follow" in a Nov. 23 letter to Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement director Joe Pizarchik. The letter was signed by officials from Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

"Neither the environmental impact statement nor the administrative record that OSM has developed over 30-plus year of regulation ... justify the sweeping changes that they're proposing to make," West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection official Thomas Clarke told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "I've had OSM technical people who are concerned with stream impacts and outside contractors for OSM who are subcontractors on the EIS give me their opinion that the whole thing's a bunch of junk."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said that if thousands of mining jobs could be lost, "then I will do everything in my power to block this wrong-headed proposal.

"Let me be crystal clear: I will fight any proposal from our federal government that poses a threat to our country's energy supply, West Virginia's coal industry, our jobs and our way of life," he said.

Manchin already plans to introduce legislation to curb the powers of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which recently vetoed a permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had long ago issued for Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County.