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'War on Coal' Rhetoric is Strong at Hearing on Coal Pollution Rules

Residents offered their two-minute takes in Lexington Thursday on a thousand-page federal coal mining regulation that’s been years in the making.

The Stream Protection Rule was proposed in July by the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation. It’s a rewrite of a Reagan-era regulation that was weakened under President George W. Bush and then thrown out by a federal court last year. Since then, coal companies have been following the 32-year-old version of the rule.

The proposed regulation places requirements on coal companies that mine near streams. Both the proposed and the original rules put a 100-foot buffer zone in place around streams and waterways. But the new version proposes different criteria for different mining activities. Like the original, it wouldn’t ban valley fills — which is when mining waste is discarded in valleys.

Most of the comments on Thursday didn’t revolve around the rule’s merits or disadvantages, but instead the idea that this regulation is another step in a calculated effort to weaken the coal industry.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-6, said the rule would “ban coal mining in Appalachia” and called for a balance between the economy and environmental stewardship.

“The OSM is stretching the law to the breaking point to try to justify this overreach, and the people of Kentucky rightly say, ‘Enough is enough,” Barr said.

Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for governor, also offered comments criticizing the rule. So did representatives for U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.

In addition to elected officials, other opponents of the rule lined up to offer their comments early and packed the first hour of comments.

“We are being attacked on all fronts, and the Stream Protection Rule is just the latest attack,” said Josh Carr, a continuous mining operator at Kenamerican Resource’s Paradise Mine in Muhlenberg County. Carr said he was laid off in West Virginia and moved to Western Kentucky to find work.

“I hope to continue working in the coal industry for many years to come,” he said. “But the only way I can do that is if reasonable, achievable regulations are put into place. The Stream Protection Rule is not that …”

While coal executives, industry advocates and several working coal miners told regulators the rule would jeopardize their livelihood if it goes into effect as written, environmental advocates and coalfields residents begged the officials to finalize the rule — or even strengthen it.

Hazard resident and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Russell Oliver referenced studies that have linked higher cancer rates and other diseases to coal mining.

“Stricter laws should be passed to protect the remaining water so that future generations will not suffer from cancer and other diseases," he said.

Teri Blanton, a Harlan County native, said what happens in the coalfields affects other parts of the state.

“This is not anything about killing jobs. This is not anything about EPA overreach or Obama’s ‘war on coal,’” Harlan County native Teri Blanton said before the hearing. “This is the absolute protection of the streams that feeds the creeks and the rivers where we get our drinking water. And everyone is impacted, whether you live in Harlan County, whether you live in Bell County or Madison County or Lexington or Frankfort. You are impacted because water runs downstream.”

The rule’s comment period ends Sept. 25, though many have asked for an extension. Written comments can be submitted here.

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