Federal coal regulators wanted to make sure the public forum they called to discuss streams also flowed as smoothly as one.
After a series of contentious meetings about the divisive issue of mountaintop removal coal mining, there were new ground rules Monday at a toned-down open house on new Obama administration proposals to tighten water quality standards for Appalachian surface mines.
People on both sides of the issue were invited to stop by between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Hazard Community College, but there were no microphones or podiums. Rather, they were asked to put their thoughts in writing, dictate them to a stenographer or send an e-mail.
“We didn’t want this to become a riot,” said John Craynon, chief of the regulatory division of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “Some of the previous meetings have turned into quite rowdy events, where folks on all sides of the issue felt threatened or intimidated. We wanted to set up an environment where we could actually hear from the people.”
Craynon said this series of meetings, which began last week and includes stops in West Virginia and elsewhere this week, were the first he knew of in which the agency opted for a walk-in open house rather than a full-blown public meeting.
But some supporters of the coal industry, who represented the vast majority of the dozens of people who attended, said the forum put them at a disadvantage in expressing their views.
“By not having a public hearing, I think we lose a lot in the process of what democracy and free speech is all about,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “Sending an email is not going to have a proper effect or representative effect.”
At issue Monday was the environmental impact of a policy that would sharply reduce the practice of filling valleys with waste from mountaintop removal and other types of surface mines in a six-state region that includes Kentucky.
“We’re trying to strike that balance in a place where we can maybe do a better job of protecting streams with rules that are clearer, that everybody understands, while also ensuring that coal production can continue,” Craynon said.
Supporters of the coal industry, many of whom wore their mining garb, said the proposed rules to protect streams were so restrictive that they would essentially end the practice of surface mining, costing countless jobs in the impoverished region.
“It doesn’t just affect mines,” said Jamie Niece, a coal mine operator from Whitesburg. “It affects companies, families, children. It has a trickle-down effect. It will destroy this community, turn it into a ghost town.”
Although they were outnumbered, a few environmentalists attended to make the case that the Obama administration should go even further toward protecting the waters from mining.
Kathy Selvage, representing Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, said she wants to see absolute enforcement of a buffer zone, preventing any mines from coming within 100 feet of a stream. That was the policy — albeit not always enforced — in the early 1980s, she said, but even the proposed rules wouldn’t go that far.
“What happened over time is we lost our respect for the integrity of water, as a nation, as a people and as a region,” Selvage said. “Based on the response from the regulatory agencies, I think they lost respect for it as well.”
Corey Fleischer, a volunteer in an AmeriCare program in conjunction with OSM, said he believes current coal miners could find better jobs elsewhere, starting with wind power. He contends Appalachia could be ideal for that industry.
However, some residents of the area argued that even beyond the question of jobs, they see benefits in mountaintop removal.
Tommy Bailey, of Hazard, said the sites of former strip mines are home to hospitals, various businesses, high-value homes and areas for wildlife to roam.
“We have lots of hills in eastern Kentucky that have no value,” Bailey said. “During the work in progress, it looks devastating, but the land is level land.”