Obama Coal Crackdown Sends Message to Industry

A move by the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke the long-standing permits for a mammoth coal mine in West Virginia sends a strong signal that President Obama plans to implement key parts of his agenda even though newly empowered Republicans can block his plans in Congress.

In the aftermath of the November elections, many political pundits predicted that the once-unchecked Obama legislative machine would turn it's energies to federal rulemaking as a way to circumvent Republicans on Capitol Hill. And the EPA’s decision last week suggests that those forecasts were spot-on.

Much to the consternation of the West Virginia delegation in Congress, the coal industry, and the working people of the Mountain State, the agency took the unprecedented step of revoking a mining permit that it had issued four years ago to Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

The revocation prompted unusually harsh responses from West Virginia's two Democratic Senators.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent the president a letter which read, in part: "I am writing to express my outrage with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) decision to veto a rigorously reviewed and lawfully issued permit at the Spruce Number 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. This action not only affects this specific permit, but needlessly throws other permits into a sea of uncertainty at a time of great economic distress."

Sen. Joe Manchin issued a statement which appeared to mock the EPA's permitting process.

"According to the EPA, it doesn't matter if you did everything right, if you followed all of the rules,” Manchin wrote. “Why? They just change the rules."

There are many critics of Appalachian surface mining, called “mountaintop removal.” The practice uses heavy explosives to expose seams of coal in the ridges of Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia. After the demolition crews flatten out the ridge tops into plateaus.

Critics claim that by changing the topography of the ridges of the coalfields, the practice is robbing mountaineers of their heritage. Environmentalists also claim that the rock and rubble from the mines kills fish, wildlife and pollutes water.

Indeed, it was a violation of the Clean Water Act, that prompted the EPA to revoke the permit at the Spruce No. 1 Mine.

"The agency took this action because this proposed mine would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend,” read the agency’s statement.

The coal industry defends the mining practices and the reclamation efforts that they say leaves usable land for development in the cramped hollows of Appalachia. But the central argument against the EPA’s move is about jobs.

"It's just the arrogance of the EPA,” said Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association. “The people in Logan County want the permit. It's important to the company. It's critically important to Logan County."

The environmental concerns over surface mining were well-known when the EPA first issued the permit in 2007. Since that time, Arch Coal has made millions of dollars in infrastructure investments in the mine, perhaps the largest ever in the region --investments which are now threatened by the EPA permit revocation.

" I don't think it's the American way," says Brad Blakeman, an advisor to former President George W. Bush. "I don’t think we rule retro-actively when businesses invested a lot of money, legally, in a permitting system that was certainly above board and they followed every rule and procedure that EPA had at the time and now to be told after-the-fact that this is now improper or legal, I think is wrong.”

Blakeman says it sends a chilling message to other industries about the power of the Federal government. He suggests that it will be up to the other two branches of our government , the courts and the Congress to decide whether the EPA's revocation of this permit , and perhaps others, stands.