Last updated: July 18. 2013 11:05PM - 224 Views
Cris Ritchie

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HAZARD — Republican lawmakers in the nation’s capital voted overwhelmingly on Friday to approve a package of bills designed to stop what many are calling a “war on coal” that they say is being waged by the Barack Obama administration, while pro-coal factions here in coal-rich Eastern Kentucky continue to ratchet up their support of the industry.

Perry County Clerk Haven King, who also serves as director for the lobbying group Coal Mining Our Future, said he heard from many people over the weekend who were excited that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Stop the War on Coal Act, but at the same time he’s realistic in that he knows the bill has little chance to make it through the Democratically controlled Senate. And even if it did, there is no chance that President Obama, also a Democrat, would sign the legislation, consisting of a total of five separate bills, into law.

Among other things, the bill seeks to limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, along with regulations relating to the disposal of coal ash. The act would also seek to limit the EPA’s ability to to overrule state regulation of water quality and create a new agency to study how the EPA’s policies have harmed coal industry jobs.

The bill passed by a margin of 233-175, mainly on a party line vote, and one of the bill’s supporters was Rep. Hal Rogers, who told WYMT-TV last week that the region’s coal miners are hurting right now with continued job loss. Since the first of the year, according to one estimate from the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program in Hazard, nearly 1,200 coal jobs have been cut in Eastern Kentucky alone, though the actual number could be higher.

There have been plenty of opponents to the bill, however, including Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who was quoted in the Washington Post as noting that cheap natural gas, and not heavy-handed federal regulations, have been the cause of a severe slowdown on the coal industry.

“The Republicans are saying there is a war on coal, but the only battle coal is losing is in the free market to natural gas,” Markey told the Post.

But according to King, whose lobbying group continues to rally support for the coal industry here in Eastern Kentucky, the war on coal is real. Through new federal policy placing what he calls unrealistic restrictions on coal companies operating in Appalachia, the EPA is costing miners in the region good-paying jobs. In the meantime, he added, miners are leaving the region for other states where coal companies are hiring because tougher regulations haven’t yet reached that far.

“When you start talking about the war on coal, there is a war on coal in Eastern Kentucky,” King said. “If you want to go where there’s no war, go to Alabama or Illinois. There’s not a war going on there now, but it’ll be there eventually.”

King recently returned from the Old King Coal Festival in Illinois, and his group has also had a presence at several other events or rallies throughout the year. He said it is important to get the support of the coal industry from as many people as possible. “People do pay attention to numbers,” he said.

King’s group has also been active inside the region, appearing at parade in Owsley County recently, as well as the Gingerbread Festival in Hindman and this past weekend’s Black Gold Festival here in Hazard, where on Saturday a small rally was held to promote the industry.

Ultimately, King said the federal government should be regulating the industry by the laws already on the book, and not by EPA policies he claims are aimed at curtailing the extraction of coal.

“(EPA Director) Lisa Jackson’s policies are going to stop coal mining,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to do what she has in her policy.”

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