House Attacks Public Health Protections in the Name of Coal

Stream Pollution from Coal Mines near Route 160 in Letcher County, Kentucky

Stream Pollution from Coal Mines near Route 160 in Letcher County, Kentucky |

Last week, Representative Johnson (R-OH) introduced the “Stop the War on Coal Act of 2012” (H.R. 3409) with the bill expected to hit the floor this week. If the goal of the bill’s sponsors is to protect the coal industry, they will have more than done so with this package of dirty air and dirty water bills that takes a broad swipe at key public health protections.

At the heart of the bill is the first provision which would prevent the Secretary of Interior from issuing or approving any proposed or final regulations under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) that would adversely impact employment in coal mines or ultimately reduce surface mining production of coal. By preventing any new regulations that would reduce production, this bill goes against the very principles of the Act which are to set minimum requirements for surface mining to minimize adverse impacts to fish, wildlife, the environment.

Most relevant for those of us who care about clean rivers and the Clean Water Act is the inclusion of Representative Mica’s “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act,” or more appropriately termed the “Dirty Water Act of 2011” (H.R. 2018). As I’ve written about previously, this bill would disrupt the careful balance between states and federal agencies by, among other things, removing EPA’s authority to object to state-approved permits under the program that regulates discharges of pollutants into our waters (the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES). The EPA would also lose its ability to veto dredge and fill permits [PDF] issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for activities such as mountaintop removal mining. This veto authority has only been used 13 times in its history, and while its use is rare, it represents a critical backstop to stop the very worst projects that would harm people and clean water.

In addition, H.R. 3409 includes modified text from similar bills introduced in the House and Senate, the “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act” (H.R. 2273) and the “Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2012” (S. 3512). This bill puts polluters before people by requiring outdated standards for the safe management of coal ash and creating loopholes to allow states to avoid meeting even those standards.

This bill would also amend the Clean Air Act to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change, in fact changing the definition of “air pollutants” to exclude greenhouse gases in relation to climate change. In addition, H.R. 3409 blocks the passage of the Mercury and Toxics Standard for Power Plants and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule which are critical to reducing air pollution and safeguarding public health.

The “Stop the War on Coal Act” buys into the idea that job creation and a healthy environment that supports healthy communities can never happen together. By broadly cutting down key public health protections, this bill puts polluters before people’s health, clean air, and clean water.