Appalachia has seen its fair share of heartbreak over the last few years. As the region now recovers from the tragic loss at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, the blame game begins (See News, p. 10). Teams re-entered the UBB mine in early June to begin the investigation. Agencies dispatched federal and state officials to inspect “questionable” underground mines in a massive industry sweep. Meanwhile, Congress heard testimony from all sides in hearings held in Washington, D.C., and in Beckley, W.Va. The industry watches as Massey Energy and the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) lock horns over the investigation and the outcome could have a significant impact on underground coal mining.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to ride roughshod on mountaintop mining. On May 18, the EPA held a field hearing at the Charleston Civic Center on its proposed veto of the Clean Water Act (CWA) 404 permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce Fork No. 1 mine (See Falling on Deaf Ears, p.48). This would be the first time the EPA has used its authority to revoke a permit that already has been issued. More than 800 people attended. State politicians and educators shared numbers that demonstrated the positive influence of coal mining in the region. Tempers flared as it became more obvious the EPA simply does not care about job losses in the region. The permit had been approved by multiple federal and state environmental agencies and was accompanied by a comprehensive environmental impact statement.

The decision to pull an existing permit could have an alarming impact on mining and investment in mining projects, especially in Appalachia. Similar to Southern Coal, mining companies regularly invest hundreds of millions of dollars on property or mineral rights, miners, equipment and technology on the assumption that they can mine coal unabated as long as they comply with the terms of the permit. By reneging on the permit, the EPA destroys what little trust remained between coal operators and the Obama administration.

The power industry, and the coal industry indirectly, was dealt another blow in June when the U.S. Senate failed to support SJ Res. 26, a joint resolution disapproving a rule submitted by the EPA relating to the endangerment finding for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The joint resolution, put forward by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Blanche Lincoln (D- Ark.), would have denied the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. In effect, by not supporting SJ Res. 26, policymakers are saying they are willing to place the U.S. economy in further jeopardy by regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

At a time when the U.S. economy needs jobs badly, coal operators and investors will be less likely to propose and fund new coal mining projects in Appalachia. Underground mine operators, already finding compliance very expensive, will most certainly face more stringent laws in the future. On the surface, the EPA calls the shots for now and the anti-mining rhetoric espoused by the agency has ramifications far beyond the hollows of West Virginia. The Appalachian coal industry faces extraordinary uncertainty.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief
sfiscor@mining-media.com