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Legislators Are Going to Unbelievable Lengths to Gouge Clean Water Laws and Cozy Up to Big Coal

'As an air-breather and a water-drinker, I take offense to the notion that coal company profits are more important than my children's lives.'

Big Coal's backlash over the EPA crackdown on future mountaintop removal operations went from denial and anger to the outright absurd last week, as state legislatures conjured their own versions of a sagebrush rebellion and the new Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a sheath of regulatory gutting amendments to its budget bill.

On the heels of its Tea Party-backed coal rallies last fall, the dirty coal lobby couldn't have paid for a better show. As millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil explosives continued to detonate daily in their ailing districts and affected residents held dramatic sit-ins to raise awareness of the growing health crisis in the central Appalachian coalfields, Big Coal-bankrolled sycophants fell over themselves from Virginia to Kentucky to West Virginia, and in the halls of Congress, to see who could introduce the most ridiculous and dangerous bills to shield the coal industry.

Their breathless message: "The EPA don't understand mining," as Kentucky’s House Natural Resources and Environment Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence, declared to his colleagues.

That misunderstanding dates back to last spring's breakthrough announcement by the EPA, following up a memorandum of understanding between the numerous federal agencies, including the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation Enforcement, on finally issuing guidance rules and cracking down on the irreversible and pervasive destruction of mountaintop removal mining operations to waterways. Based on government studies that conclusively demonstrate that "burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems," the EPA issued new conductivity levels "to protect 95% of aquatic life and fresh water streams in central Appalachia" and effectively bring an end to the process of valley fills (and the dumping of toxic coal mining waste into the valleys and waterways).

After an eight-year hiatus of enforcement under the George W. Bush administration, in which an estimated 1,000-2,000 miles of the headwater streams were jammed and sullied by toxic coal waste, along with the destruction of hundreds of mountains and tens of thousands of hardwood forests and the depopulation of historic Appalachia communities, the EPA's return to its true role as enforcer of the Clean Water Act made it a convenient target for Big Coal outrage.

Not for coalfield residents.

"The actions of these state governments trying to circumvent federal law reminds me of the old, discredited tactic of 'nullification,'" Coal River Mountain Watch president Bob Kincaid noted. A resident in the Raleigh County, West Virginia coalfields, he added, "Kentucky's, Virginia's and West Virginia's bought-and-paid-for retro-confederate governments have completely forgotten the lessons of history. They want to pick and choose the laws they obey. Where the EPA is concerned, it's especially bad, since the EPA is all that stands between Appalachia and the utter ruin of what's left of it. As an air-breather and a water-drinker, I take offense to the notion that coal company profits are more important than my children's lives."

Kentucky state legislature had a new take on nullification. Only days afters celebrated author Wendell Berry and 13 other Kentuckians, including a retired coal miner and inspector, occupied Gov. Steve Beshear's office in a protest over the state's 40-year crisis of mountaintop removal mining, the Kentucky state legislature attempted to officially establish a " sanctuary state" for the coal industry that would be exempt from "the overreaching regulatory power.” Kentucky already underwrites an additional $115 million each year in state funds for maintenance and health damages beyond any coal industry revenues.

"My friends, we Kentuckians are in a very sick family," responded Harlan County-raised author George Ella Lyons in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Our government is owned by big corporations and the result is obscene. Sanctuary -- sacred protected space -- is declared for those who are abusing the basis of our survival. How long do you think we can live without clean water and air?"