Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled legislation this week aimed at forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expedite the process for coal companies seeking permits to open new mines.
McConnell made a series of stops in the Kentucky coalfields Monday to promote what he has dubbed The Coal Jobs Protection Act. He said the proposal is a response to some 4,000 jobs that have been lost in the state’s Appalachian region over the past year.
Market conditions, worsened by two back-to-back mild winters, have hit central Appalachian mines hard. McConnell accused the EPA of worsening the situation by stonewalling the permitting process.
“After more than four years, it is clear this administration has declared a war on coal,” McConnell told about 100 people gathered inside a mining equipment sales shop in Pikeville. “You in eastern Kentucky have suffered the most. Coal production in the region is down by nearly 28 percent, the lowest level since Lyndon Johnson was president. As a result, 4,000 miners in eastern Kentucky have lost their jobs — a drop of nearly 30 percent.”
U.S. Rep. Shelly Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said she will introduce similar legislation in the House next week. Capito was to join McConnell during a stop in Hazard. McConnell accused the EPA of being “dead-set on trivializing your livelihoods” in pursuit of a “radical ideology” that has closed 100 coal-fired power plants over the past four years.
“So I think it’s clear what this administration’s true goal is,” McConnell said. “It’s not to see the coal industry actually comply with so many unreasonable regulations and red tape. It’s to see the coal industry driven out of business altogether. Well, I won’t let them get away with it. Not without a fight.”
EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson had no immediate comment on the proposed legislation.
McConnell said his latest proposal could protect coal jobs by reforming a permitting process that he said the EPA has turned into “an illegitimate, back-door means to shut down coal mines permanently, by sitting on permits indefinitely and removing any certainty from the regulatory process.”
“By playing this game of ‘run out the clock,’ they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs.”
The legislation would require the EPA to act faster to approve or veto two of the required permits to open or expand mines. The EPA would have 270 days to consider to one of the required permits that deals with potential runoff from proposed mine sites. If the agency takes no action in that time, the permit would automatically be approved.
The bill would give the EPA 90 days to begin the approval process for another of the required permits that deals with the disposal of soil and rock removed to unearth coal. And it would give the administration a year to conduct an environmental assessment of a proposed mine. Failure to act within that time frame would mean the permit is issued and that the permit wouldn’t be subject to judicial review.
Tom FitzGerald, an environmental attorney and head of the Kentucky Resources Council, said Mc- Connell’s bill could actually have unintended consequences that could prove harmful to the coal industry.
“When you impose firm timeframes on an agency, to the extent that they are not realistic timeframes, then you’re as likely to trigger a negative response from the agency where, otherwise, an agency may work with an applicant.”
The Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said he “strongly endorses” McConnell’s proposal, saying it would address the permitting issues that have “unfairly plagued” the state’s coal industry.
Elkhorn City Mayor Mike Taylor said coalfield towns are reeling from the job losses and from local residents moving away in search of work. But he said the downturn in mining has also hurt cities that have grown dependent on revenue from a tax on mined coal. That revenue, he said, helps pay for basic services, including water distribution, sewage disposal and police protection.
“It is our livelihood here,” Taylor said. “It would be absolutely scary, if the coal industry didn’t exist, what would happen to our town.”