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Foes, advocates testify about Obama's proposed changes to Stream Protection Rule

| Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, 9:18 p.m.
Jesse Avery, 32, of Washington, Pa., a miner at Murray Energy's Marshall County Mine listens to Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray speak before a hearing in September in Green Tree about new federal environmental rules for the coal industry.
Dave Conti | Tribune-Review
Jesse Avery, 32, of Washington, Pa., a miner at Murray Energy's Marshall County Mine listens to Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray speak before a hearing in September in Green Tree about new federal environmental rules for the coal industry.

A stream of coal miners lined up Thursday in Green Tree to blast a proposed federal rule they say endangers their future, as environmental advocates asked for stronger regulations to protect their water.

“The Obama administration's so-called Stream Protection Rule is the single greatest threat to the jobs and family livelihoods of our employees that I have seen in my 58 years in the coal industry,” Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray said in comments that drew a standing ovation from supporters and about 100 of his employees in the crowd at the DoubleTree by Hilton.

“I truly understand jobs are important, but so is protecting our water,” said Kim Jones of Wind Ridge in Greene County, whose property was undermined.

The Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining is taking testimony in six cities on a proposal it released in July to revamp its 32-year-old stream protection rule. It seeks to increase mining permit requirements for water monitoring, land and stream restoration and to adjust the bonds that companies must post to cover ecological damage.

Many of the nearly 70 speakers announced their opinion through their attire before stepping to the podium. Employees of Ohio-based Murray Energy showed up in uniforms and hardhats. Activists wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with “Our Water, Our Future.”

Opponents called the proposal another overreach by an administration determined to trample the coal industry, extending surface mining rules to underground operations. Some blamed “radical environmentalists and liberal elitists,” phrases often used by Murray, a critic of Obama who has sued the government over regulations that have contributed to widespread job losses and mine closures.

Cliff Forrest, president of Kittanning-based Rosebud Mining Co., compared the rule to “pouring sand into the crankcase of the greatest engine in the world.” Pennsylvania Coal Alliance CEO John Pippy said regulation should remain in the hands of state officials “who are closest to and best able to comprehend the landscape of our commonwealth (and) make the day-to-day decisions that impact all Pennsylvanians.”

Environmental advocates countered that existing rules and state oversight have failed to ensure stream restoration.

“A ditch full of rocks only looks like a stream,” said Krissy Kasserman, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper for the Mountain Watershed Association. “Ecological function must be restored after mining.”

People deserve a chance to protect their land by challenging permits, supporters said.

“If a coal mining project is going to harm a stream to the point where it cannot be used in the way it had been previously, the permit cannot be issued,” said Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice.

The Office of Surface Mining is accepting written comments on the proposal until Oct. 26.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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