By STEVE ROBERTS
CHARLESTON -- While much of the media attention on energy issues over the past months has been focused on congressional action related to the cap-and-trade tax, an even more pressing and dire situation is pending that affects domestic energy and coal mining jobs.
That situation involves the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's reviews of federal water permits for mining and construction activities.
The EPA's reviews, which were announced in late April, are holding up nearly 50 permits in West Virginia and another 50 or more across the United States.
These permits are needed to allow for expanded mining activities or new mining activities. And, these permits are not just for surface mining activities ... several of these permits are needed for underground mining operations.
It is estimated that the permits in West Virginia would:
* maintain or expand thousands of coal mining jobs and service/support jobs,
* generate millions of tons of coal production worth billions of dollars, and
* provide for tens of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues.
The EPA initiated its review process because the agency said it had "serious concerns about the need to reduce the potential harmful impacts on water quality caused by certain types of coal mining practices, such as mountaintop mining."
The EPA said it is taking this step because it has "considerable concern regarding the environmental impact these projects would have on fragile habitats and streams."
While the agency is looking at water quality issues, it appears the EPA isn't factoring the economic consequences of holding up these permits, nor the benefits and jobs that come from continued coal mining in West Virginia.
Lastly, the agency's action isn't factoring in the benefits of maintaining an important, abundant and affordable domestic energy resource.
When this was first announced, many in the coal mining industry were concerned that the EPA's review process will slow or stop the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers from issuing needed, lawful permits.
The Corps of Engineers is responsible for issuing federal Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands and other waters.
Their concerns have come to be substantiated in spite of EPA's assurances to the industry and to states such as West Virginia.
Here is a "clarification" that EPA put out the day after it announced its review process:
"The Environmental Protection Agency is not halting, holding or placing a moratorium on any of the mining permit applications. Plain and simple.
"We fully anticipate that the bulk of these pending permit applications will not raise environmental concerns. In cases where a permit does raise environmental concerns, we will work expeditiously with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how these concerns can be addressed.
"EPA's submission of comments to the Corps on draft permits is a well-established procedure under the Clean Water Act to assure that environmental considerations are addressed in the permitting process."
To date, only a small number of these needed permits have been acted upon.
Let's hope the EPA stands by this statement and works more expeditiously to resolve any issues so hardworking West Virginia miners and their families will continue to have jobs and paychecks.
Moreover, West Virginia's economic vitality, business activity and tax revenues are driven, in large part, by having a healthy coal industry.
Further delay or adverse action taken on the federal level against continued production and processing of coal will have serious consequences.
Our elected leaders need to show their support for West Virginia, its economy, its workers, its communities and its families.
They need to make sure federal agencies are not arbitrarily taking punitive action against our state.
They also need to stand against the radical forces who want to undermine or destroy the state's coal industry.
Our state is being victimized by an agenda being pushed by out-of-state interests who don't have the best wishes in mind for our families and communities.
Let's hope our state leaders continue to stand up for our energy industry and work to keep workers and their families from ending up in the unemployment lines.
Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
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