PIKEVILLE — There was no place to hide and few friendly faces for Environmental Protection Agency representatives Thursday, as hundreds of pro-coal supporters arrived at the Pikeville Expo Center Thursday to challenge the agency’s objections to mining permits.
The hearings were held over 36 objections applied by the EPA, related to water quality standards of coal mining permits.
In an excerpt pulled from one of the 36 objections to be cited during the hearings, relating to Matt/Co, the EPA objected “to the methods and practices of Kentucky Division of Water’s handling of water quality studies, with regard to the National Pollutant Discharge Standards (NPDS) that KDOW sent to the EPA for mining permits.” In particular, the EPA suggests that KDOW is not meeting Kentucky’s standards for assessing the amount of pollution entering waterways as effuse from coal mining operations.
Over 30 people addressed the panel, mostly pro-coal supporters with harsh words for the EPA.
Pike Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford didn’t mince words in expressing his views about the EPA and its regulatory practices over the coal mining industry.
The judge said EPA objections are part of a “war against coal” by the Obama administration and U.S. EPA head Lisa Jackson.
Rutherford, who spoke during Thursday’s EPA hearing in Pikeville, told The Floyd County Times that he questions the scientific data of the EPA.
“They require more stringent controls than the public water district,” Rutherford said.
When the few voices of representatives from groups like the Sierra Club spoke, they were greeted with boos or, in one instance, empty seats as most of the audience got up and left during one environmental advocate’s address.
“We feel that the EPA is rightfully stepping in where the state has failed to act,” said Alex DeSha, an associate with the Sierra Club. DeSha says that the EPA should uphold all of its objections and revoke the state’s delegated authority to rule on such matters.
Dr. Matt Wasson, with Appalachian Voices, echoed the comments of DeSha. Wasson notes that there have been layoffs in the coal industry, but in no instance have those layoffs ever been attributed to these permits.
According to its website, Appalachian Voices is an environmental non-profit committed to protecting the land, air and water of the central and southern Appalachian region, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future.
“This is all political theater for politicians to come in and blame the EPA,” says Wasson. “Picking a fight with the EPA is not a battle worth winning because it will not create a single job.”
“The EPA is just a scape goat,” he added. “When it is really the invisible hand of the free market, and good coal just can’t compete.”
According to EPA officials, the event was not designed to be a question-and-answer session, but to offer people of the region an opportunity to share their thoughts on the controversial mining permits.
Jim Giattina, director of the Water Protection Division, USEPA Region 4, provided opening remarks for the EPA members on hand.
Giattina highlighted recent mining innovations which have been making coal mining environmentally friendly.
“The EPA and the Kentucky environmental cabinet have been working for the last two years to apply common-sense practices,” Giattina said.
According to Giattina, the permits in question, NPDS water discharge permits, are a “basic control for determining water pollution.”
Giattina tried to reassure attendees that the EPA is not anti-coal when he said the division has issued 87 surface mining projects and 28 underground mining projects, but stated that new environmental concerns are being discovered in the last several years in water quality. Sediments, salt and metal runoff from mines can destroy waterways, Giattina told the audience.
Leonard K. Peters, Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary said the hearings were unprecedented. He said his office has had concerns with EPA practices for two years.
“Environmental permitting is not designed to stop legitimate business activities,” said Peters. “Regulations need to be fair and reasonable.”
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul were not present, but issued statements read during the hearings. McConnell called the policies of the Obama administration “especially irritating,” and said the administration’s continued “regulatory assault on Eastern Kentucky” is an attempt to “crucify” the coal industry.
Jim Milliman, with Sen. Paul’s office, gave a heated oratory, questioning how the people of Eastern Kentucky can expect fair hearings when the Obama administration says it wants to “bankrupt the coal industry.”
Gwen Keyes Fleming, a regional administrator with the EPA, said in a statement released earlier this week that the people in Kentucky should not have to choose between a clean healthy environment to raise their families, and jobs they have traditionally worked to support them.
“In the past three years, Kentucky has issued permits for 115 mining projects. An estimated 2,500 additional coal mining projects in Kentucky proceed under a general permit,” said Fleming. “EPA’s objections are limited to 36 water discharge permits for coal mines in Kentucky, because of a concern that they do not contain limits to prevent pollutants, including toxic heavy metals, salts and sediment, from contaminating Kentucky’s waterways.”
Giattina said that the public comment period to express concerns with the EPA’s objections will end on June 21. The EPA regional administration will review the objections, and if they choose to withdraw any of the objections, KDOW will be able to move forward and issue the mining permits.