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EPA skips latest 'war on coal' hearing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Officials from three federal agencies decided to skip a Friday hearing staged to give congressional Republicans another opportunity to continue their campaign against Obama administration policies aimed at reducing coal's impacts on the environment, public health, and the global climate.

A House Natural Resources subcommittee had scheduled the hearing to question the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's veto of the largest mountaintop removal-mining permit in West Virginia history. The hearing was called, "Obama administration's actions against the Spruce Coal Mine: Canceled permits, lawsuits and lost jobs."

Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., called EPA's veto of the Arch Coal Inc. permit "one of the most disgraceful legacies of federal bureaucracy in American history." Lamborn said the veto, since overturned by a court decision that EPA is appealing, was just one example of the Obama administration's "war on coal."

"President Obama's war on coal can be felt throughout this country," Lamborn said. "Americans should be disturbed by this trend."

In West Virginia, coal employment actually grew during the first three years of the Obama administration, though industry officials say layoffs announced since the first of the year will soon show up in those statistics.

Nationally, coal's share of power generation -- once easily more than half -- dropped to a little more than a third during the first three months of 2012.

Experts say the switch is due in large part to the increase in cheap natural gas production fueled by advanced drilling techniques that have opened up shale-gas reserves. And utilities say that many of the coal plants they've targeted for closer would have been shuttered regardless of any EPA rules, because they were aging and inefficient.

"People want to blame Obama for the free market turning against a technology that is outdated and not competitive," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Friday's hearing, the latest in a series of House events set up to allow criticism of Obama's coal policies, was billed as focusing on the EPA's Spruce Mine veto.

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson didn't show up. Agency spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said short notice of the hearing prevented Jackson from appearing. Formal notice of the hearing was issued May 23, and Jackson's schedule indicated she was at a science festival in New York on Friday.

Also not attending the hearing were Jo-Ellen Darcy, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, and Jeff Pizarchik, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

OSM spokesman Chris Holmes said Pizarchik did not attend because OSM had no role in the permit issuance or veto. A corps spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about why Darcy did not attend.

Environmental groups have been trying to stop the Spruce Mine since 1998, when it was first proposed as a 3,113-acre extension of Arch's Dal-Tex Mine that would have buried more than 10 miles of streams.

At issue now is the permit, approved by the corps in January 2007, for a scaled-back version, a 2,300-acre operation that would bury more than seven miles of streams. The mine eventually would employ 250 workers and mine about 44 million tons of coal over about 15 years.

In January 2011, EPA vetoed the permit, citing "destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and the clean water on which they depend." A report prepared for EPA by a mining engineering firm found Arch could have reduced environmental impacts without significantly increasing mining costs.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had ruled that EPA is not authorized to withdraw a Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permit that was already issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

EPA has appealed, and Arch Coal has agreed not to pursue mining operations until the appeal is heard.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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