To the Editor:
The Preventing Government Waste and Protecting Coal Mining Jobs in America Act: from the title alone – preventing waste, protecting jobs – what’s not to love?
As the headliner at last month’s annual township trustees’ meeting, Representative Bill Johnson said he introduced the act (H.R. 2824) as an antidote to President Obama’s “attack on the coal industry.”
A newspaper article quoted Johnson as saying the Obama Administration’s attempt to rewrite the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule has already cost taxpayers $9 million; and should the rewrite effort succeed, he said, the new rule “would cost 100,000 jobs in the coal industry” and “prices (would) skyrocket.”
So what is the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule?
Originally, the rule was an amendment to the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977. Enacted in 1983 during the Reagan Administration, the amendment required state programs “to regulate excess spoil (the industry term for the broken rock and other debris created during the “mountaintop removal” mining process), coal mine waste and buffers for intermittent and perennial streams.
Specifically, the 1983 amendment prohibited surface mining within 100 feet of a stream with waivers granted only when companies could show water quality would not be compromised.
The 1983 amendment was replaced during George W. Bush’s administration with the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule, a watered-down version of the Southern Environmental Law Center says “exempted the most destructive surface mining activities entirely from the buffer zone rule,” including “valley fills and coal waste disposal facilities in streams.”
Then in February 2014, the federal district court in Washington invalidated the 2008 rule and reinstated the 1983 limits.
Judge Barbara Rothstein’s ruling stated that “faced with clear evidence that habitats within stream buffer zones are home to threatened and endangered species and mining operations affect the environment, water quality and all living biota, the Office of Surface Mining’s determination that the (2008) revisions to the stream protection rule…would have no effect on threatened or endangered species of critical habitat was not a rational conclusion.”
Enter Rep. Johnson with H.R. 2824, which passed the House of Representatives in March.
Two amendments to H.R. 2824 failed. One would have required states to implement the 1983 rule and the other would have allowed states to issue their own rules if those rules exceeded the federal standards.
The bill hasn’t gone before the Senate yet and likely won’t unless Republicans claim the majority in November.
If, or when, it does pass both houses and becomes law, H.R. 2824 will do only one of two things: first, require that the toothless 2008 rule goes back into effect and second, force the government to study the rule for five (more) years before recommending any changes. (Well, three things if you count sucking up to mining company oligarchs.)
In my view, the only explanation for that five-year moratorium is that it would expire smack-dab in the middle of what Johnson – heck, the entire party – is betting will be a Republican presidential administration, which could be more amenable to allowing concerns about endangered species and water quality to quietly be swept under the rug.
The Obama Administration isn’t entirely blameless. February, when Rothstein issued her ruling, would have been the ideal time to roll out the stream buffer zone’s eventual replacement: the “Stream Protection Act.” But the administration claims interference by the Republicans has hampered the rule-making process.
That, plus worries about negative reaction to a leaked report from the Inspector General which pegged job losses from the Stream Protection Act at 7,000, which, in turn, caused the Office of Surface Mining to direct the consulting firm working on the protection act to re-figure the affect on jobs. No job loss is insignificant these days, but whatever the final number turns out to be, it apparently will not be anywhere near the 100,000 mark that Rep. Johnson put forth.
What I want to know is this: when will we ever learn? On the heels of two major environmental atrocities – the toxic spill that fouled Charleston’s municipal water supply, then 39,000 tons of coal ash being released into the Dan River in North Carolina – the sheer stupidity of tolerating (indeed, applauding) such self-serving political maneuvering over something as critical as water safety is mind-boggling.