Many members of Congress continue to attack the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for doing its job when it comes to the regulation of mountaintop removal mining.
The EPA doing its job, some insist, is putting coal miners out of their jobs.
At a House Oversight Committee hearing on July 14, most of the witnesses were industry supporters lambasting the increased scrutiny of mountaintop removal mining and complaining that scrutiny was costing the industry jobs.
But as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., noted, coal mining jobs have increased in West Virginia in recent years. Referring to a graph projected on a screen in the hearing room, she said, "Here we are in the middle of a recession, and jobs in coal mining have increased even though that green line denotes that the demand for Appalachian coal at U.S. plants has decreased."
Speier is correct. Since the recession began in 2007, demand for Appalachian coal has declined significantly. But even so, the number of coal miners has increased 8.5 percent.
How could that be with EPA's "job-killing" regulations? The data suggest that as mountaintop removal permits have been slowed by litigation and EPA regulation, the industry has stepped up production at underground mines -- and employment has gone up as a result.
Mountaintop removal mining is a capital-intensive operation that relies on huge machines, high-powered explosives and a complete disregard for environmental consequences to get at coal seams buried under the Appalachian mountains.
As Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment and one of the witnesses at the hearing, pointed out, this mechanization is the real culprit behind the decline in the number of Appalachian coal miners over the last few decades.
In 1978, there were almost 63,000 miners in West Virginia, and they produced almost 85 million tons of coal. In 2010, there were only 20,000 miners, but thanks to mechanization, they produced 144 million tons of coal.
If politicians like Rep. Shelley Moore Capito -- who was the first witness at last month's hearing -- truly cared about West Virginia mining jobs, they would be fighting against mountaintop removal mining rather than championing it.
As Lovett said in his testimony, "Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs."
The jobs argument is a convenient smokescreen, unsupported by facts, but it's important to remember why the EPA is taking a harder look at mountaintop removal permits: Increasing scientific evidence is demonstrating the harm caused by mountaintop removal both to the environment and to public health -- including a recent study that suggests an increased risk of birth defects in areas where mountaintop removal takes place.
The saddest part of the spectacle taking place in Congress -- which held yet another EPA-bashing hearing on July 26 -- is the fact that coal country representatives like Capito, Rep. Nick Rahall and Sen. Joe Manchin are leading the charge against the federal agency that's attempting to protect their constituents while they go to the mat to protect their campaign contributors.