As part of a broad study of mountaintop removal, federal regulators have found that limits on valley fills would do only minimal damage to West Virginia’s overall statewide economy.
The strictest limits considered would cause a decline in statewide employment of 5 percent to 11 percent over the next nine years.
That sounds like a lot, especially in a state as poor as West Virginia.
But in the study, federal government officials emphasized: “On an annual basis, this decline amounts to just 0.1 to 0.2 percent of current total employment, and 0.2 to 0.4 percent of current total earnings.”
The study, which examined West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee coalfields, says, “Local leadership and citizen attitudes toward future growth are generally supportive in all cases.
“Environmental protection, natural resource conservation, and cleaner industry are priorities in all four states,” it says. “There is a positive attitude toward growth that can replace dirty industry of the past, including coal-mining operations.
“The study concluded that the fastest-growing industries [as exhibited recently in other rural areas] with growth potential for Central Appalachian coalfield economies include tourism, retail trade, health-care services, and back-office and call centers,” it says. “Furniture products and owner-operator manufacturing are also potentially fast-growing.”
The study also said that, “a reduction in mining may also have some positive side effects.
“For example, forestry values may be preserved, for environmental amenity value or for timber and wood product value.”
The economic impact analysis is the final, and most controversial, piece of a detailed Environmental Impact Statement being written on mountaintop removal.
In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies agreed to conduct the study as part of a deal to resolve a federal court lawsuit over mountaintop removal.
The study was supposed to be completed by December 2000, but has still not formally been released.
In late April, the Charleston Gazette obtained a draft of the study. That draft is now posted on the newspaper’s Web site at http://wvgazette.com/eis.
EPA officials have emphasized that the various studies performed as part of the EIS are not complete and should not be taken as the government’s final word.
“It would be premature to represent these or any of the preliminary findings as the position of the agencies developing this EIS until the studies and EIS documents have undergone a thorough interagency review and concurrence process,” wrote William Hoffman, acting chief of the EPA Office of Environmental Programs in Region III, in a letter to the newspaper.
The draft released by EPA indicated that regulators and the contractors they hired had not yet completed the economic analysis.
More study records
Last week, EPA provided another box of documents and a computer CD containing more records from the study process.
Those documents include a computerized slide show in which EPA officials summarized their findings.
Among other things, they said, “New or revised regulatory requirements may cost mining jobs.
“[But] mountaintop mining ruins opportunities for tourism and recreation,” the slide show said. “Mechanization of large-scale surface mining reduces demand for coal miners.”
Also among those new records was an April 23, 2002, draft of an EIS chapter called, “Economic Consequences.”
The chapter summarizes the findings of EPA’s effort to estimate the potential economic impacts of stricter mountaintop removal regulation.
Officials from the coal industry, regulatory agencies and citizen groups have argued for several years over the methods used in the economic study.
In early 2001, a draft of the EIS was pulled from a planned public release because Gov. Bob Wise and West Virginia legislative leaders were upset that the economic analysis wasn’t yet completed.
There are also apparently some problems with the study that may underestimate the amount of mining and other jobs lost under the various scenarios for additional regulations, EPA records show.
An April 15, 2002, EPA memo says that the EIS Steering Committee has discussed “a plan for addressing the flaws in the economic study.
“The committee agreed to go forward with the existing study results, but to quantify the results as likely to have a greater impact on the industry than projected,” the EPA memo says.
The federal government’s economic analysis did not specifically study the possible effects of last week’s ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II.
In his ruling, Haden said that coal mining valley fills are no longer allowed unless they are proposed as part of a company’s plan for post-mining development of a mountaintop removal site.
No cheap waste disposal
“The Court does not rule in a vacuum,” Haden wrote. “It is aware of the immense political and economic pressures on the agencies to continue to approve mountaintop removal coal mining valley fills for waste disposal, and to give assurances that future legal challenges to the practice will fail.
“Some may believe that reasonably priced energy from coal requires cheap disposal of the vast amounts of waste material created when mountaintops are removed to get at the natural resource,” the judge wrote.
“Congress, did not, however, authorize cheap waste disposal when it passed the Clean Water Act.”
In their study, EPA contractors examined the potential coal that would be lost if valley fills were limited to various-sized streams. They looked at unrestricted dumping, 35-acre watersheds, 75-acre watersheds, 150-acre watersheds and 250-acre watersheds.
Contractors then tried to predict the jobs that might be lost in mining, and in spinoff industries, if those valley fill limits were enacted.
For example, they found that, if valley fills were limited to watersheds of 150 acres or less, surface coal mine production would be reduced by 27 percent.
If fills were limited to watersheds that drain less than 35 acres, total coal production would be cut by about 25 percent, the study says. The decline in surface production would be partially offset by a 12 percent increase in underground production, the study says.
Even with no new fill limits, EPA contractors from Hill and Associates said their work “indicates a generally downward trend in coal production and employment in West Virginia.
“This trend is driven in the most part by a decline in surface coal mining that becomes noteworthy in 2006,” the study said.
Work force cut in half
By 2010, surface coal mine production and employment will each have dropped nearly 40 percent, the study said. Underground production and employment will drop by about 5 percent, it said.
In 1990, there were about 30,000 working coal miners in West Virginia. In 2000, there were about 15,000, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The EPA study said, “By way of comparison, it is interesting to note that reported statewide mine employment in 2001 was nearly 47 percent lower than in 1990, which would be equivalent to a 5.5 percent average annual decrease.
“Hill and Associates attribute this declining trend chiefly to a combination of the depletion of reserves, and competition with western coal.”
The study said that, “the major declines in study area coal production occur in 2006 and 2009.
“In 2010, coal employment in the study area is projected to be 23 percent lower than in 2001,” it says.
“When looked at from the point of view of this large, somewhat diversified region, these declines do not appear cause for great alarm,” it says. “The 23 percent coal employment difference amounts to less than one percent of current year employment. It is in certain regions where the changes would be felt most acutely.”
Southwestern West Virginia’s coalfields would be most affected by changes in mountaintop removal regulation, according to the EPA study. But the region is already expected to see declining coal production, the study said.
“The southwestern region is expected to undergo an overall declining trend in production, driven by declines in surface mining,” the study says. “Underground mining is expected to fluctuate, without showing any clear trends up or down.
“Therefore, underground mining would increase its share of production and employment in the region,” it says. “Its share of production is projected as increasing from 55 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2010. The proportional shift into underground mining dampens the effect of the total production declines on total employment.
“While production in 2010 is forecast as 24 percent lower than in 2001, employment is forecast to be 12 percent lower. By way of comparison, reported coal mining employment in this region was 37 percent lower in 2001 than in 1990.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.