Mining industry worried more about new regs than new laws passing

A leading voice for the mining lobby predicted this weekend that partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill all but ensures that Congress won't pass new miner protections anytime soon.

Instead, said National Mining Association (NMA) CEO Hal Quinn, the industry should be most wary of new regulations flowing from the White House, which is eying a number of reforms affecting the nation's mining companies.

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"From emission controls on greenhouse gases to mine safety rules, coal mining in Appalachia will be the subject — if not the target — of new regulations," Quinn said Saturday during a gathering of the West Virginia Coal Institute in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. "As divided government and partisan gridlock block legislation, regulators will continue to pose the greatest challenge for coal mining and the communities it supports.

"In fact," Quinn added, "regulations may be the only tool for our detractors to enact their agenda."

Among the rules the industry should fear, Quinn said: 

• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), empowered by the Supreme Court, is moving forward with plans to regulate greenhouse gasses — including those emitted in enormous amounts by coal-burning power plants — as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. 

"Expect protracted litigation to result," Quinn says.

• The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is drafting new rules to protect the nation's miners underground, including stricter penalties for mines that habitually violate safety standards. 

"MSHA already has authorities to address unsafe practices and shut down unsafe operations," Quinn said, "which raise questions about the need for the additional ones being advanced."

• EPA is also cracking down on mountaintop removal mining, a process in which companies literally blast away Appalachian peaks to access the coal beneath. To save hauling costs, the excess rock, soil and debris — often containing toxic heavy metals — are pushed into adjacent valleys, burying streams that form the headwaters of larger rivers below. The EPA is currently reviewing a number of mountaintop permits for their adherence to the Clean Water Act — a delay Quinn says is costing jobs. 

"These guidelines are both misguided and unlawful," he said. "The relevant science does not justify the new water quality criteria being used by EPA." 

The combination of proposals, Quinn charged, represents "a deliberate effort to constrain the production and use of coal and, at the same time, deny businesses and households the benefits of low cost and reliable electricity."

The comments arrive as Democrats in Congress are urging strict new rules designed to protect the nation's coal miners from the very companies that sign their checks. Armed with heaps of testimony that some mining companies habitually prioritize coal production above worker safety, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) want to make the industry more accountable for conditions in the mines. 

The issue has generated countless headlines since April, when an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia killed 29 miners and all but killed a 30th. The owner of the operation — Virginia-based Massey Energy — had received hundreds of safety violations in the months leading up to the disaster, but the project was allowed to remain active. 

Many of the citations were related to problematic ventilation systems and accumulations of combustible coal dust — conditions suspected of contributing to the blast. State and federal investigations are ongoing.

Both the House and Senate bills would hike financial penalties for safety violations; bolster protections for whistleblowers who report hazards; grant subpoena power to mine regulators investigating accidents; and empower inspectors to close troubled mines more quickly. 

The proposals have hit a buzz-saw of opposition from Republicans, who have effectively stalled the bills in both chambers. GOP leaders say the reforms are too stringent, threatening the mine companies amid an employment crisis when the resources would be better spent hiring and retaining workers.

Rockefeller this week warned that, if Congress fails to pass the reforms in the lame-duck session following November's elections, it might be years before the proposals emerge again. 

Next year, Rockefeller told The Hill Wednesday, "there’s going to be even more of the ideology factor plus the party discipline factor."