Excessive Regulation of Mountaintop Mining Puts American Jobs at Risk, by Caroline May

At the very time President Obama is trying to convince the public that job creation is his number one priority, his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps that could cost nearly 53,000 Americans their jobs.

Since Obama took office, his EPA has targeted mountaintop mining projects for enhanced regulatory scrutiny – halting the issuance of up to 200 mountaintop mining permits and slowing their approval to a mere trickle.1,2

Coal is the source of about 50% of America’s electricity demands; of that, mountaintop-mining (MTM) accounts for about 10%.3,4 However, mountaintop mining is currently in the environmental movement’s crosshairs. The green lobby argues that the government should ban MTM not only because coal allegedly contributes to global warming, but also because it believes it to be a process that defaces mountain scenery, destroys habitats and pollutes water and air.

Outspoken mining opponent and environmentalist patrician Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been at the forefront of the resistance to Appalachian mountaintop mining. Writing in the Washington Post, Kennedy contends, “Mountaintop removal coal mining is the worst environmental tragedy in American history… King Coal is now accomplishing what the glaciers could not — obliterating the hemisphere’s oldest, most biologically dense and diverse forests.5

Despite such protests, companies have practiced the process safely for over 40 years and are retrieving coal that contains less environmentally-detrimental sulfur than traditional mining methods.6,7

The industry is highly regulated. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), a law that requires that companies undergo an extensive permitting process, restore the mined land to its original or better condition, and sets far-reaching environmental mandates and enforcement mechanisms, has stringently regulated its work since 1977.8 The Clean Water Act, which requires companies to obtain permits and adhere to various environmental regulations in order to prevent contamination of nearby water bodies, has also kept the industry in check for decades.9,10

The National Mining Association points out that in addition to the aforementioned laws, the industry also must comply with rules laid out in the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, and “there are also thousands of pages of federal and state regulations providing environmental protection, protection of public health and safety, as well as opportunity for public input during permitting activities.”11

While there is an inevitable footprint associated with mountaintop mining, it is far from the dramatic forest decimation opponents propagate. In 2003 the Department of the Interior conducted over 30 studies on mountaintop mining to produce a “Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” on the effects of mountaintop mining. The document provided recommendations for regulatory improvements and offered encouraging environmental news.

The studies revealed that mountaintop mining affected only 6.8% of mined or soon-to-be-mined land and only 2% of water bodies. While reclaimed land slowed tree growth (a problem the study asserts has since been mitigated), it also provided a fertile ground for grasses. Further, “Grassland bird species are more predominant on reclaimed mines…. amphibians (salamanders) dominate unaffected forest, whereas reptiles (snakes) occupy the reclaimed mined lands. Small mammals and raptors appear to inhabit both habitats.”12

The Coalition for Mountaintop Mining reports that in addition to reconstructing viable habitats after excavation, “mountaintop mining has also created numerous sites for new schools, hospitals, shopping centers, parks, golf courses, housing, airports, industry, agriculture and timber.”13,14 In spite of the aforementioned benefits, since the election of environmentalist ally Barack Obama, the industry has been facing additional analysis and permitting examinations.15

While environmentalists demonize industry and fret about the inflated threat to scenic mountain vistas, they fail to appreciate the fact that this process represents a large portion of Appalachia’s economy. Coal recovered by mountaintop mining in Appalachia is valued at $12.6 billion and represents a hefty source of state-level tax revenue. The Center for Business and Economic Research concluded, for example, that “placing serious limitations on this efficient technique would result in a loss equaling ‘nearly nine percent’ of West Virginia’s tax revenue.”16

A 2009 study conducted by the National Mining Association reports that for every mining job created in Appalachia, 3.5 indirect jobs result. There are currently 14,000 coal miners in the region and about 49,000 corresponding workers in the form of “mining services, sales, and other related business,” all of whose jobs may hang in the balance as EPA throws around its regulatory might.17,18

Appalachia has long been plagued by poverty and the current economic downturn has served to exacerbate the pain.19 The region fits the national definition of “persistently poor” in which 20% or more of residents live below the poverty line.20 The loss of mountaintop mining would serve to further devastate an already severely blighted section of the country.21

In January the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee issued a Minority Staff Report that harshly criticized the manner in which the EPA has handled these coal mining permits since Obama’s inauguration. “The appropriate balance between the level of environmental protection to be afforded and the need to create jobs and economic growth and investment as well as the nation’s energy policy and national security is a policy judgment that should be elevated beyond the bureaucratic functionaries at EPA who appear to be responsible for this recent shift.”22

If President Obama truly wants to reduce the unemployment rate, he should take notice of the Senate Committee’s report and act to prevent such over zealous regulatory action.



Caroline May is a policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.


1 Mike Mentrek, “EPA to review mountaintop coal mining permits,” Cleveland.com, March 24, 2009, available at http://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2009/03/epa_to_review_mountaintop_coal.html as of February 16, 2010.

2 David Fahrenthol, “EPA crackdown on mountaintop coal mining criticized as contradictory,” Washington Post, January 28, 2009, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/27/AR2010012704588.html?hpid=sec-nation as of February 16, 2010.

3 Dan Shapely, “Both Ways on Coal? Where Do Obama and McCain Stand?,” The Daily Green, September 22, 2008, available at http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/shapley/mountaintop-removal-47092202 as of February 16, 2010.

4 Ayesha Rascoe, “U.S. Should Stop Mountaintop Mining – Scientists,” Reuters, January 7, 2010, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0719066720100107 as of February 19, 2010.

5 Robert F. Kennedy Jr., “A President Breaks Hearts in Appalachia” Washington Post, July 3, 2009, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070203022.html as of February 16, 2010.

6 “The Facts on Mining,” Mountain Top Mining, available at http://www.mountaintopmining.com/ as of February 16, 2010.

7 “Mountaintop Mining Fact Book,” National Mining Association, March 2009, available at http://www.nma.org/pdf/fact_sheets/mtm.pdf as of November 15, 2010.

8 “Surface Mining Control and Reclaimation Act of 1977,” Federal Wildlife and Related Laws Handbook, University of New Mexico, 2008, available at http://wildlifelaw.unm.edu/fedbook/smcra.html as of February 23, 2010.

9 “Mountaintop Mining Fact Book,” National Mining Association, March 2009, available at http://www.nma.org/pdf/fact_sheets/mtm.pdf as of November 15, 2010.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 “Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement: Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia,” Environmental Protection Agency, October 2005, available at http://tw0.us/6ZJ as of February 23, 2010.

13 “Restoration,” Coalition for Mountaintop Mining, available at http://mtmcoalition.com/restoration.aspx as of February 16, 2010.

14 “What is Mountaintop Mining?,” Coalition for Mountaintop Mining, available at http://www.mtmcoalition.com/what-is-mtm.html as of November 15, 2010.

15 Debra McCown, “Proposed coal mining rule changes spark fierce debate,” Bristol Herald Courier, February 7, 2010, available at http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewiStockNews/articleid/3844657 as of February 16, 2010.

16 “Mountaintop Mining Fact Book,” National Mining Association, March 2009, available at http://www.nma.org/pdf/fact_sheets/mtm.pdf as of November 15, 2010.

17 Ibid.

18 Susan Jones, “Obama’s EPA Puts Thousands of Mining Jobs at Risk,” Cybercast News Service, March 29, 2009, available at http://www.cnsnews.com/public/content/article.aspx?RsrcID=45616 as of February 16, 2010.

19 Carol Pipes, “Appalachian Regional Ministry celebrates 10 years of caring,” North American Mission Board, 2009, available at http://www.namb.net/nambpb.aspx?pageid=8589970798 as of November 15, 2010.

20 “About Central Appalachia,” Appalachian Community Fund, 2008, available athttp://www.appalachiancommunityfund.org/html/aboutcentralA.html as of February 16, 2010.

21 Nancy L. Young-Houser, “Central Appalachian’s Barrier to Sever Poverty Mountaintop Removal Mining?,” AKGMag.com, 2009, available at http://www.akgmag.com/ as of February 16, 2010.

22 Matt Dempsey and David Lungren, “EPA Ignores Transparency, Concerns of West Virgina Officials,” U.S. Senate and Public Works Committee Minority Staff Report, Janurary 14, 2010, available at http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=ec6c3919-4949-452d-b0d3-6ca95e441494 as of February 16, 2010.

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