Republicans say Kentucky miners losing ‘war on coal’

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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Kentucky coal miners have been hit hard by job losses. Coal employment has declined 30 percent across the state since last year, and some counties have seen coal jobs plummet by nearly 70 percent.

Many are blaming what they describe as increasingly stringent federal environmental regulations that aim at reducing the country’s use of carbon dioxide-heavy fuels, like coal.

“This is a reality check, particularly in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields,” said Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. “The trend has been downward for some time.”

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet reported that 2012 coal mine employment and production are down across the state from 2011 levels, in particularly in Eastern Kentucky. The Cabinet found that coal production was down more than 16 percent — the lowest level since 1965 — and coal mine employment decreased by 22 percent as the state lost more than 4,000 jobs.

“It is our livelihood here,” said Elkhorn City Mayor Mike Taylor. “It would be absolutely scary, if the coal industry didn’t exist, what would happen to our town.”

Elkhorn City is located in Pike County and saw coal mine jobs decrease by 28 percent since 2011 — with only 2,316 still employed by coal mines. Taylor said that local residents are moving away from coal towns to find work, and cities that depend on mining for tax revenues are finding it hard to pay for basic services, like sewage disposal and police forces.

Eastern Kentucky counties like Knott County and Breathitt County were among the hardest hit. Knott County saw coal mine jobs decline by more than 63 percent, and Breathitt saw coal jobs fall by more than 68 percent.

Western Kentucky has fared relatively well compared to Eastern Kentucky. Coal production actually increased 2.5 percent and coal mine employment remained unchanged. However, while some western Kentucky counties have seen huge gains in employment, others have taken serious losses.

Henderson County in Kentucky saw coal mine employment decline more than 60 percent. McLean saw it decline by more than 27 percent.

“We recognize the serious hardship that these layoffs mean for many workers and communities in the region,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. “It is abundantly clear that Eastern Kentucky needs strong leadership and more focus on growing a different economy. Eastern Kentucky has many of the building blocks for a stronger, homegrown economy — through strategies like entrepreneurship, and more support for sectors like forestry, agriculture, tourism, health care and energy efficiency to name a few — but they require real investment and forward looking leadership.”

Republicans suggest the huge job losses in Kentucky’s coal industry are further evidence of the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

“After more than four years, it is clear this administration has declared a war on coal,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Last week, McConnell introduced legislation that would require the EPA to move more quickly on mining permits.

“This EPA has turned the coal permitting process into an illegitimate back-door means to shut down coal mines permanently, by sitting on permits indefinitely and removing any certainty from the regulatory process,”  McConnell added. “By playing this game of ‘run out the clock,’ they have put many Kentucky mining operations into limbo and cost Kentucky thousands of jobs and over $123 million in coal severance money.”

Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that the EPA could revoke a water pollution permit for a coal mine four years after it had been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. The court ruled that the Clean Water Act put no time constraints on when the EPA could revoke a mining permit — something McConnell’s legislation aims to remedy.

McConnell’s bill would force the EPA to approve or veto Clean Water Act Section 402 permits within 270 days and Section 404 permits within 90 days of receiving an application. If the agency fails to act within the time period, the permit is automatically approved.

“Not only will this ruling cost West Virginians hundreds of jobs, but it begs the question: Who’s safe? If the EPA can take back a permit from a coal mine in West Virginia, they can do the same to any business in America,” said West Virginia Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.

However, environmental groups cheered the decision, saying it would help the environment and protect public health.

Communities “can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that EPA always has the final say to stop devastating permits for mountaintop removal mining,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse.

“Simply put, my constituents are under siege from the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda and the EPA is the worst offender,” McConnell said. “Eighteen thousand Kentuckians work in coal mining. And nearly 200,000 more, including farmers, realtors, and transportation workers, rely on the coal industry for their jobs.”

“Coal brings in more than three and a half billion dollars from out-of-state, and pays more than one billion dollars in direct wages every year,” he added. “Attacking an industry so important to Kentucky will only succeed in putting people out of work, impeding future job growth, and increasing energy prices.”

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