Oberstar: No plans for panel to take up mountaintop coal mining bill yet

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Friday that he'll wait to see how the Obama administration tackles mountaintop-removal coal mining before his panel takes up legislation on the issue.

More than 170 lawmakers have endorsed a bill that would effectively end the controversial process, but it would have to pass through either Oberstar's Transportation Committee or the Natural Resources panel, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), to reach the floor. 

Rahall, a longtime defender of mountaintop coal mining, said this week that, not only won't he allow the bill through his Natural Resources panel, but Oberstar, as "a favor" to Rahall, "is not going to bring it up" either.

Oberstar's office all but confirmed that statement Friday, saying the Minnesota Democrat first wants to gauge the effectiveness of new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules designed to protect neighboring communities from the damage caused by the controversial process.

"Oberstar has been following the issue of mountaintop mining over the past few years and has been supportive of the agency’s renewed focus on the water quality impacts of mountaintop mining," spokeswoman Mary Kerr said Friday in an e-mail. "[EPA] has been working to address deficiencies in the process caused by the Bush Administration’s inaction and neglect.  

"Rep. Oberstar has discussed the issue with Rep. Rahall on numerous occasions, and the Committee will continue to monitor the agency’s actions and determine at a later date whether legislation is necessary," Kerr said.

The comments arrived on the same day that a top EPA official recommended a veto of the permit for the largest mountaintop-removal project in West Virginia history.

Mountaintop removal is a type of strip mining in which companies blow the tops off of Appalachian peaks to access the seams of coal beneath. The rock, soil and other debris is pushed into adjacent valleys, burying tiny streams that form the headwaters of larger rivers below. 

The process is hugely popular with the coal industry because it saves labor and hauling costs. But it also ravages neighboring communities, poisoning wells and waterways, contaminating air, killing off wildlife and flooding nearby homes. 

Researchers have linked the process to cancer and other serious health conditions.

The EPA estimates that nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried by mountaintop projects.

Responding to community concerns, the EPA in April installed new rules to block mountaintop mines projected to raise the conductivity of nearby streams above a certain level. Conductivity is the right measure, the agency says, because the runoff from Appalachian mines often contains things like selenium, magnesium and sulfate — conductive ions that threaten living things.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in April that there are “no or very few valley fills that will meet standards like this."

The mining industry has fought back, arguing that conductivity is the wrong test for measuring the health threat associated with mines. 

Conductivity, says the National Mining Association, "is not a meaningful measure of contamination or the ability of a given body of water to meet its designated use."

Congress has jumped into the fray as well. The House bill, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), would prohibit companies from dumping mine waste into streams — effectively ending mountaintop removal because hauling the debris would make the process economically unfeasible in most cases.

Rahall, facing a tough fight for an 18th term, said he's the only reason the bill hasn't passed already.

"There are only three districts where [mountaintop mining] is a big issue and done prevalently," he told the Register Herald in Beckley, W.Va. "To other members of the Congress across the country, Republicans included, if the vote were allowed to get to the House — which it’s not because of me — [it] would be a freebie for them to throw to environmentalists. 

"That’s why it would pass overwhelmingly."