By Eric Pianin
February 3, 2017
President Donald Trump and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill just moved ahead with their promised rollback on Obama administration environmental rules, making it clear that concerns about climate change, clean water, and public health must take a back seat to job creation and economic expansion.
In a flurry of congressional activity, the Senate took final action early Friday morning to reverse the Stream Protection Rule, which was designed to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests from rocks and debris generated by coal industry surface mining and so-called mountaintop removal. The House previously approved the measure, and it now goes to the White House for Trump’s signature.
That rule was deemed critical by environmentalists and public health advocacy groups in Appalachian coal communities to protect the nation’s waterways and prevent the contamination of drinking water and other public health threats.
But the Trump administration and mining industry complained that the rule could endanger up to 590 coal mining jobs and that the estimated $52 million in annual compliance costs was too steep a price to pay. Scientists say that surface mining – especially mountaintop removal – cause serious local air and water pollution and contributes to higher rates than normal of cancer, heart and lung disease, and even birth defects.
Some analyses show that economic costs of health problems in Appalachian coal mining areas are more than five times greater than the economic benefits from mining. Beyond contributing to climate change, outdoor methane leaks contribute to smog, which aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Senate Republicans on Thursday used their majority to suspend committee rules and push through Trump’s choice, Scott Pruitt, bypassing Democrats who had refused to show up for a vote on his nomination. Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, has been a leading advocate against what he calls “EPA’s activist agenda” and filed briefs in 14 lawsuits against EPA policies, including President Obama’s signature clean power initiative to reduce industrial carbon emissions.
In both congressional actions to roll back the Stream Protection Rule and the oil and gas drilling rules, Congress invoked an obscure law, the Congressional Review Act. That law allows lawmakers to rescind executive actions taken during the previous 60 legislative work days if the rule threatens to impose excessive costs or exceeds presidential authority.
Until now, the 1996 Congressional Review Act was invoked only once by Congress, during the Clinton administration, and was conceived of as a rifle shot to be held in abeyance except in cases of extreme presidential overreach. But as part of the planned, all-out warfare against Obama environmental protections, House and Senate Republican leaders intend to use the CRA to go after a wide array of provisions.
While highly efficient in maximizing coal production, mountaintop removal is not only a brutal disfigurement of a natural resource; it is notorious for deforestation, destruction of headwater streams, and the contamination of downstream surface waters. Those mining practices over the years have killed fish and wildlife and posed public health problems for residents in the area.
What’s more, imposing the regulation is not a job killer. Fewer miners are needed to operate massive bulldozers and cranes used in blasting away the sides and tops of mountains. A recent Congressional Research report outlining the pros and cons of the rule noted that even without the measure, the coal industry would decline by more than 15,000 workers, from a total of 90,000 in 2012.