As this edition of Coal Age goes to press, the events unfolding in Appalachia do not bode well for the coal business. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is talking out both sides of its mouth holding up mine permits, trumping U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decisions, while saying that it is not against coal mining. Mining associations and labor groups find themselves powerless to protect shovel-ready jobs. Politicians in West Virginia have all but abandoned the coal miners. Environmental activists and coal supporters clashed at public hearings held throughout the region. Saying outward hostility toward the Obama administration is growing in coal country would be a major understatement. With tension mounting, we dispatched Lee Buchsbaum to cover the Appalachian permitting debacle. What he found was coal operators and engineers at the end their ropes, unafraid to express an opinion (See Appalachian permits article on p. 32).

While writing about the coal rally last month, I pondered whether anyone outside West Virginia heard what was being said. Apparently Washington was listening and surface miners in Appalachia have become the whipping boy for the EPA. Throughout all of this, the coal miners heard nothing but silence from Governor Manchin (D-WV), and Senators Byrd (D-WV) and Rockefeller (D-WV). Only Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) had the intestinal fortitude to question EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

During a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, on which Rahall serves as the Vice Chairman, Rahall asked Jackson whether she believed that clarity and certainty is the goal in the EPA’s reviews of coal mining permits. She confirmed that it was something the EPA owes the mining community. Following up, Rahall mentioned that some believe that the EPA wants to end all coal mining. Jackson said, “Unequivocally, neither EPA nor I personally have any desire to end coal mining, have any hidden agenda, any agenda whatsoever, that has to do with coal mining as an industry.”

The same day, the EPA sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers questioning the permit issued for Arch Coal’s Spruce Fork No. 1 mine. When fully developed, the Spruce Fork mine would be the largest mountaintop mine in West Virginia. The EPA has never before used its authority to review a previously permitted project since Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972. To believe that the EPA will stop here would be very naïve. This is not just a mountaintop mining issue and the rest of the industry needs to prepare. It’s only a matter of time before the agency begins to question surface disturbances for underground mines, prep plants and refuse impoundments. The consequences of these actions will be enormous.

The die may have already been cast for future mountaintop mining operations. Eventually the lawyers from the mining companies will right this regulatory wrong. Meanwhile, small- and medium-size coal operators, with six to 12 months of permitted reserves remaining will go broke. Larger mining companies will view future mountaintop mining operations as too risky. West Virginia could lose as much as 50 million tons per year in production during the next few years. As many as 5,000 jobs are at risk. With a 7:1 extended impact, more than 35,000 people or more will be affected. Life is tough in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and it’s not going to get any easier under the Obama administration.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief