The Times West Virginian

Headline News

March 26, 2014

House moves to block Obama coal rule

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Tuesday approved a bill that would prevent the Obama administration from imposing a stream-protection rule for coal mining that government experts say would eliminate thousands of jobs.

The administration rule is intended to replace Bush-era regulations that set up buffer zones around waterways and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. The House bill would reinstate the 2008 rule, which was thrown out earlier this year by a federal court.

The House approved the measure, 229-192.  Ten Democrats joined 219 Republicans in favor of the bill.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it limits states’ ability to tailor safeguards to their own needs and wastes millions of dollars adopting a rule that has been vacated by a federal court.

The House bill mirrors a measure approved in 2012 and is unlikely to be taken up in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Even so, debate on the bill was vigorous. Republicans complained that a rule proposed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is part of what they call President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.” Lawmakers cited a draft report by the agency indicating that the proposed rule would cost an estimated 7,000 jobs while slashing production across the country.

The rule is intended protect streams from adverse effects of surface mining in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, but it would affect coal mines nationwide.

“President Obama talks a big game about being for all-of-the-above” energy sources, said the bill’s author, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. “But at every turn, he tries to shut down fossil fuels” such as coal.

The Obama administration has spent more than $9 million to develop the new rule, “without a single result,” Johnson said. His bill would boost efforts to “stop the war on coal and put in place regulations that are more realistic and effective for both businesses and the environment,” Johnson said.

But Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said the bill “ignored the real impacts of mountaintop removal mining” to focus on “the imaginary impacts of a rule.”

Holt and other Democrats said the real misconduct was by the Bush administration, which proposed an ineffective rule that did not survive legal scrutiny. Holt denounced a “midnight rule” imposed by the Bush administration in December 2008, a month before President George W. Bush left office.

The rule undermined existing protections put in place by President Ronald Reagan and encouraged mountaintop removal mining, a practice that “destroys wildlife habitat, contaminates surface and drinking water, leads to flooding and ... increases the incidence of cancer, birth defects, lung disease and heart disease in people who live nearby,” Holt and eight other Democrats said in a statement opposing the bill.

The House vote came as two other federal agencies proposed a separate rule intended to clarify which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act, an issue that remains in dispute even after two U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the regulation Tuesday.

Under the proposed rule, protection would be extended to most seasonal streams and wetlands near rivers. Others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule responds to pleas for clarity from state and local officials as well as industry, environmentalists and farmers.

The Clean Water Act gives the government jurisdiction over U.S. waters, but there’s disagreement over which are covered. Developers have fought in court against regulation of wetlands and streams that they say should be exempt.

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