Rep. Alex Mooney (WV 2nd) is celebrating the demise of the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule. This Rule, made effective in the waning days of President Obama’s tenure, would have created a buffer zone between mountain streams and mine sites and would have protected drinking water in accordance with modern technology. The Rule would have mainly affected mining done by mountaintop removal where mining refuse is pushed into stream valleys. But Rep. Mooney and his Big Coal backers claim that the Rule would have killed over 70,000 jobs in the coal industry. Unfortunately, Rep. Mooney’s grasp of coal economics and employment numbers is feeble, perhaps influenced by his ideological impulse to dance on the grave of the Obama Administration.
The scientific evidence of the harm done by mountaintop removal with valley fills is unassailable. In January 2010, Science Magazine published an article detailing that harm, written and researched by twelve preeminent scientists including one from WVU. They found that burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems. Stream biodiversity and water quality suffer. As they emerge from valley fills, mountain streams are saturated with sulfate, calcium, magnesium and other harmful ions. These persist even after mine-site reclamation. Groundwater samples from domestic supply wells have higher levels of mine-derived chemicals than well water from unmined areas. The article, written before Obama’s stream protection Rule, concludes
mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biological diversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate that [mountaintop removal with valley fill] causes significant environmental damage despite regulatory requirements to minimize impacts.
Balanced against this certain environmental harm is Rep. Mooney’s rather hysterical claim that huge numbers of West Virginia coal jobs would have been lost under the Rule. It should surprise no one that Rep. Mooney’s numbers come straight from the National Mining Association. That group’s analysis asserted that as many as 77,000 jobs might be lost nationwide under the worst scenario, but possibly far fewer under more likely scenarios. Those are not all West Virginia jobs, or even Appalachian jobs. And there is good reason to doubt the bona fides of NMA’s numbers because they do not take into account the reclamation and compliance jobs that would be created by the Rule.
Congress required the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to estimate the proposed Rule’s impact on employment, not just on coal jobs. In a document entitled SPR Myths vs, Facts, it debunks industry claims that between 40,000 and 77,000 jobs would be lost:
The final [Stream Protection Rule] will not have an adverse impact on jobs. The regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for the rule estimates overall that employment will show [an annual average] increase of 156 full time jobs. Where coal production is unprofitable under market conditions, jobs are predicted to decline by an average annual aggregate of 124 fulltime jobs. This will be more than offset by an average annual gain of 280 fulltime jobs needed to comply with the rule where mining remains profitable, such as additional jobs like heavy machine operators for materials placement and water sampling professionals. For purposes of comparison, the Energy Information Administration reports that total coal industry employment in 2015 was equal to 65,971, decreasing 12% from 2014.
In a February 22, 2017 opinion piece, the Morgan Messenger took Senators Capito and Manchin to task for claiming that rolling back the Rule would save state coal jobs. “They don’t do our state any favors by pretending to have turned back the loss of coal jobs,” the Messenger said, noting that coal jobs have been declining for years due to economic factors unrelated to environmental regulations. Rep. Mooney is guilty of the same and more. By accepting and further promoting the coal industry’s false narrative about a “war on coal” he delays the reckoning we in West Virginia must have about replacing coal jobs and severance revenues. He keeps us in the perpetual coal rut. The roll back of the Stream Protection Rule is no cause for him to celebrate.