The federal judge who slapped down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for being overzealous in its crusade for water quality in Appalachia is a hero to some – like Gov. Steve Beshear, known for his strident demand that the EPA “get off our backs,” and the Kentucky Coal Association, party to a lawsuit by the National Mining Association challenging the agency’s authority to set higher standards for Kentucky and other states.
The decision is bad news, however, for those who lament what’s being done as a matter of course to the land and water of this state’s mountainous region.
Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, told The Courier-Journal of Louisville the ruling marked a sad day for the people of eastern Kentucky and for the natural resources of their homeland. “Everyone knows that fish and aquatic life in Appalachian streams are dying at an alarming rate,” she told the paper.
Because Kentucky, in a bow to the cynical politics of majority rule, failed to answer the pleas of a relatively small number of residents unfortunate enough to live downstream from strip-mining operations, EPA stepped in and imposed tighter regulations which blocked 36 mining permits. EPA came to Frankfort in June to hold a public hearing on the issue.
U.S. District Judge Reggie P. Walton ruled Tuesday that the agency went too far in expanding its regulatory authority; he said the job should have been left to state regulators. The state’s unwillingness to address the concerns of eastern Kentuckians directly impacted by the ravages of mountain mining was a separate issue, the judge suggested. While acknowledging the need for a balance between preservation of Applachia’s unique natural heritage and the importance of coal to the region’s economy, he said it was not a question for the court to decide.
In a way, he’s right. The commonwealth should take responsibility for doing right by its own people, even when the victims of coal mining are outnumbered by individuals who want the industry to go about its business with little or no interference from “tree huggers.” State authorities have shown, time and again, that they’re indisposed to help. Beshear hailed the court ruling as a victory for “coal miners who have seen mines close and their jobs put in jeopardy.”
It’s more likely mines are shutting down and laying off workers because the mild winter reduced demand for the coal used to fuel power plants and huge reserves of cleaner-burning natural gas are threatening black gold’s preeminence as the fossil fuel of choice. Both the mining and the combustion of coal are dirty processes, and the only redeeming feature is the mineral’s low cost. Even the mild winter may have resulted in part from the heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases spewed into the atmosphere by coal-fired generating stations.
The industry won this round, but the battle continues. The political tide probably won’t turn until more of us realize that bad things happening in the mountains don’t necessarily stay in the mountains.