Rogers rips EPA chief over coal permits

The powerful Republican head of the House Appropriations Committee got rough with President Obama’s environmental chief over the Environmental Protection Agency's coal mine permitting process on Wednesday.

The wood-paneled committee hearing room suddenly seemed like a small-town courtroom as Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) turned prosecutorial on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

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At one point, after Jackson fumbled when trying to name any Appalachian mines she had permitted during her tenure, Rogers declared “I rest my case!”

At issue is an October Federal Court ruling in the case of National Mining Association vs. Jackson. Rogers said that the ruling makes clear that the EPA must quickly finish processing the coal permits before it, which the EPA reviews under the Clean Water Act.

“I’ve got people with pink slips all over the landscape because you will not process these permits on a timely basis as the court ordered you to do,” he said. “I find it contemptible that a public servant would utilize the practice, as you have, to by not deciding to make a decision.”

Rogers said that EPA has admitted that 130 permits are stuck in the process. Jackson said there are 37 under review.

“Do you know when the last one was approved?” Rogers asked.

Jackson said she did not know.

“Name me one permit you have approved since you have been director,” Rogers boomed.

Jackson named a January 2010 permit for the Hobet 45 mine.

“What’s that?” Rogers said, demanding Jackson spell it.

Jackson meekly said that rather than giving a faulty list, she would be happy to give one at a later date.

“No, I want to know now!” Rogers said.

Jackson said she could not give a list.

“I know you can’t because there has not been any,” Rogers insisted. 

“I can’t understand how you would sit there and not know details of this magnitude to a whole section of this country,” he said.

Jackson retorted that Appalachia residents deserve clean water.

“I live in these hills, what you call navigable streams is a mountain gulley that has water in it once in eight years. For you to call that a navigable stream under your jurisdiction is absolutely ridiculous,” the chairman said.

Rogers signaled afterwards that while the EPA authorizing bill is the best place to resolve the issue, he might use his role as spending chief to deal with the coal mine issue through a rider in the 2013 department of Interior appropriations bill.

“I reserve the right to look at the appropriations process to try to resolve this issue,” Rogers told The Hill. Last year's appropriations bill had dozens of environmental riders, including several regarding the Clean Water Act, but these were stripped in negotiation with the Democratic-controlled Senate before a catch-all spending bill was passed in December.

Later, after Rogers left the room, Jackson’s staff produced the names of six mines she had approved.

EPA spokesperson Betsaida Alcantara said after the hearing that 110 individual and general mining permits have been issued by the Corps of Engineers since the Obama administration began under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. EPA has reviewed and commented on 38, she said.

She also said that the NMA vs. Jackson case does not address the speed with which EPA must address permits at all.

“The District Court decision does not affect EPA’s Clean Water Act authority to protect communities in Appalachia from the public health and environmental impacts caused by poor coal mining practices,” she said.  “While the court's decision does not address the issue of "timeliness" of permit decisions, EPA and the Corps are working closely with the states to expeditiously approve permits for environmentally sound mining projects.

An aide to Rogers said Wednesday that no permits have been issued in Rogers' district, which is overseen by the Louisville Corps of Engineers, since 2009.

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