Coal wins, earth loses

Published:

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.

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  • CaSO4.. You spoke chemistry. You know what that does to me. (Apologies to Gomez Adams) Couldn't you have just said Calcium Sulfate? Or perhaps Gypsum? Most folk don't understand the numbers. A pretty harmless material other than changing the bottom of a stream.

  • The other disgusting thing here is that our own DEP , under the direction of our weak-*** Governor, has failed to do their job. It has gotten even worse since I left the department. They have found it more convenient to keep their jobs by knuckling under and issuing permits with no teeth, than standing up and saying "This is wrong". Even when there are violations of those permits, the coal companies know the most they will get is a slap on the wrist. The KCA still wields a lot of power in this state.

  • A judge like this is not interested in facts. If he were, he would tour the areas impacted to see the damage first hand. He is not beholden to the people, only to the coal companies. My colleague at EPA Region III, who helped develop the criteria for the new standards, e-mailed that, when he got the word on the court decision, he was sampling in streams that had substrate like pavement from all the CaSO4 deposits. I have attempted to sample many streams in Eastern KY and found that same situation, along with conductance and dissolved solids levels so high that either no or only very hardy aquatic life lived there. The adverse effects,on aquatic life and human health, of the coal mining will remain long after everyone has forgotten the reason they are that way. Short-sighted, get-it-now attitudes still prevail. Clean coal is a myth, especially on the mining end. The worst part is that there are better (although not perfect) ways to extract coal without doing all this damage. It might be a little more costly in the short term, but in the long run will be effective. And would provide as many, if not more, jobs for the residents.

  • U.S. District Judge Reggie P. Walton is one of those Republican appointed judges that is going to side with big freaking industry against the people every time. These are called "activist" judges for a reason, as they use their bench to make law, not enforce it. Surely, these judges have families who will be impacted by the increased toxic pollution that his ruling will allow. One can only hope for karma to even the score.