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House Fast-Tracks Bill to Limit EPA Power Over Mountaintop Coal Removal

A vote is expected next week on bipartisan legislation that would restrict the power of EPA rules covering mountaintop mining, waterways and wetlands

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jun 29, 2011
Mountaintop removal mining in Virginia

WASHINGTON—Conservationists knew that new GOP anti-regulatory muscle in the 112th Congress would be intent on debilitating landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

But they're still taken aback by an attempt to incapacitate the latter in one fell swoop.

Next week, the full House is expected to vote on a fast-moving bipartisan bill that would elbow the federal government aside and elevate the power of state-level rules covering mountaintop-removal mining, waterways and wetlands. Even if it passes, however, the bill isn't expected to gain traction in the Senate.

Reps. Nick Rahall, a Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia where mining is king, and John Mica, a Republican from Florida where water pollution standards are less than well-defined, are swiftly shepherding the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018) through their chamber.

Mica, Rahall and 34 other co-sponsors tout their bill as one that will restore a balanced partnership to a law that they say now subjugates state authority.

But none other than the Environmental Protection Agency challenges that conclusion. The agency claims the measure would "significantly undermine EPA's ability to ensure that state water quality standards are adequately protective and meet Clean Water Act requirements."

Environmentalists Alarmed; Industry Heartened

Advocacy organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council interpret the bill as an attempt to prevent the EPA from reversing or overruling decisions that have to do with water quality limits and permits, as well as permits pertaining to the dredging and filling of waterways and wetlands.

"This is similar to what we see going on with the Clean Air Act," Steve Fleischli, an NRDC senior attorney and water specialist, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "It undermines the EPA’s effort to do its job by attacking the underlying basis for the Clean Water Act. By taking the federal out of the federal Clean Water Act, it sets us back 40 years.

"Experience tells us that didn't work out that well," he continued, "and that we do need the Clean Water Act to level the playing field."

NRDC was one of 10 environmental groups signing a June 20 letter urging representatives to reject the bill.

Not surprisingly, the National Mining Association praised Mica and Rahall for taking the initiative to provide certainty for jobs and the Appalachian economy. The trade group blamed EPA for forcing the region to bear the brunt of regulatory overreach that stymies permits for coal mining.

"By restoring the long-standing balance between state and federal regulators in the permitting process," association president Hal Quinn said via news release, "mining operations, their vendors and suppliers and small businesses throughout the region can put more people to work, stimulate local economies and get back to producing energy for the nation."

Moving Mountaintops

Rahall has long criticized the EPA's handling of guidance on surface mining under the Obama administration. He claims that his home state is at a competitive disadvantage because the agency has put the mine permitting process in turmoil.

"The EPA has a legitimate role to play in the Clean Water Act permitting process, and, early on in this administration, many had high hopes that the EPA would provide the clarity and certainty that coal mining constituencies throughout Appalachia have been seeking for many years," the West Virginian testified at a May 5 oversight hearing of a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee. "Unfortunately, we have been disappointed as a result of guidance that the EPA issued in April of last year.

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