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"War on coal" seen behind federal mining rules that Maryland is opposing

Last vestiges of Md. coal mining wary about new federal environmental rules.

Just a few years ago, Jack Ternent was selling chain, rope and cement to the coal mines in the mountains around his store — the kind of trade that propped up Western Maryland's economy for more than a century.

But as the coal industry has withered nationally, and in Maryland especially, Ternent said those kinds of supplies are now just as likely to sit idle in his warehouse.

"Mining is what made this town," Ternent said, frowning below the portrait of his grandfather, who opened the lumber store here in 1885.

"Now," the 73-year-old said, "'coal' is a dirty word."

Amid a long decline in coal production and a shift toward cleaner sources of energy, communities in Appalachian Maryland are bracing for a new challenge: a sweeping federal proposal intended to limit the environmental impact of coal mining on streams.

Some are concerned the plan will deliver another blow to a once-vital local industry now teetering on the edge of extinction.

The Department of the Interior rules, which the Obama administration hopes to complete later this year, would require more extensive water testing to guide efforts to mitigate the impact coal mines have on streams that flow from the mountains of Maryland's panhandle into the Potomac and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Supporters say current mining regulations — designed more than 30 years ago — haven't kept pace with new techniques that can be used to restore the quality of nearby waterways. Environmentalists say the industry's economic legacy cannot be separated from its impact on the land itself.

"It's been a boon for us but it's also been a problem," said Eric Robison, a founding member of Engage Mountain Maryland, a Garrett County-based environmental group, said of coal mining. "We privatize the profits and we socialize the problems."

Mining towns

Though Maryland's coal production is eclipsed by those of neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the 20 mines still active in Garrett and Allegany counties remain economically and culturally significant for the region.

Evidence of the region's long connection with coal linger. Roads winding through the mountains carry names such as "Burning Mines" or, simply, "Mine Street." The high school football team in Frostburg uses a miner as its mascot. In Lonaconing, a park on Main Street honors a five-story furnace built in the 1830s — the first in the United States to use bituminous coal to produce iron ingots.

"A hundred years ago, you were either a coal miner or a merchant if you lived here," said Polla Horn, a retired nurse from Frostburg who has been researching people who died in the mines. "We're pretty economically depressed up here, and coal is one of the last things that is left."

Just over 400 Marylanders work in the mines today — a number roughly consistent with the past several decades. But coal production in the state has fallen rapidly in recent years, down 62 percent to 1.9 million tons from 2005 to 2013, according to an annual report from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

By comparison, some 20,000 people work in coal mining in West Virginia.

The decline is partly a result of economics: Natural gas has become so abundant and cheap that it has depressed demand for coal. But those who live in this conservative stronghold also blame federal regulations, and fault the Obama administration specifically.

A 'bevy of regulations'

"Stop the war on coal," reads a sign planted in a yard on Route 36 north of Westernport. "Fire Obama."

"There's just a whole bevy of regulations that have come out at the federal level [and] have made coal almost economically unfeasible to take out of the ground," said Del. Jason C. Buckel, an Allegany County Republican.

Several of the largest mining companies operating in the state did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Maryland Coal Association, which was created in the 1980s to advocate for the industry, closed in December, and its former executive director declined an interview request.

In Washington, the companies are represented by the National Mining Association, which has strenuously opposed the proposed rules. The group estimates the rules would threaten between 40,000 to 78,000 coal mining jobs.

"Few things in government are more dangerous than a regulatory agency looking for a purpose," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the coal lobby.

But despite a 1977 federal law aimed at reducing the coal industry's impact on streams, officials with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement say coal mining has displaced fish and wildlife, destroyed waterways and replaced hardwood forests with nonnative plants.

The proposed rules would require mining companies to return those streams to the condition they were in before operations began. And states would be required to monitor that process.

Federal officials say the industry is vastly overstating the potential impact on jobs. In its own analysis, the Interior Department says 10 coal jobs could be lost annually, nationwide.

The administration of Gov. Larry Hogan is opposing the regulations, arguing they are overly broad and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement. The Maryland Department of the Environment, which is charged with enforcing federal mining rules, sent a three-page later to the federal government in October outlining its objections.

The state would be required to determine the ecology of a site before mining begins — a baseline — and to continue to test conditions throughout the life cycle of a mine. The proposal would also require mining companies to replace native trees within 100 feet on each side of a stream, rather than leaving behind the scrubby fields that usually signal a reclaimed mine.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the rules would require the state to hire at least one biologist, and also potentially foresters, geologists and engineers. The Maryland Bureau of Mines has 11 employees.

All told, the state estimates the rules would add up to $400,000 in annual costs — about 80 percent of the money the federal government sends to Maryland to offset the cost of regulating the industry within its borders.

"Maryland's biggest concern … is the burden it would place on the state's taxpayers as an unfunded mandate," Grumbles said in a statement. "The proposed rule holds the potential for significantly increased costs to the state for manpower and other permitting and enforcement resources."

Environmental concerns

Aaron Isherwood, an attorney with the Sierra Club, is not swayed by that argument. The environmental group has argued that the Obama administration should make the proposed coal rules stronger.

"The fact that the state of Maryland might have to hire a biologist to make sure that surface mining isn't destroying Maryland streams — it's well worth it," he said. "The states … have just been failing to ensure that streams are restored."

Keith N. Eshleman, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, said he is skeptical that the proposed rules would have a significant impact on the environment or the industry.

That's because the underlying Carter-era law included loopholes that would remain intact. There's only so much tinkering a federal agency can do on its own.

"At the end of the day, these are relatively modest rule changes," he said. "The proposed rules will probably add some additional costs for both regulators and the [companies] that may improve things at the margins, but coal mining in Appalachian watersheds will continue to cause irreparable ecological harm."

Coal mining has a rich history in Western Maryland that predates the nation's founding. A young George Washington speculated that the "fuel of the future" lay in the ground along the western edge of Allegany County.

Commercial coal mining began in the region in the 1800s. The industry peaked in the early 1900s, with 450 mines producing about 5 million tons annually, according to state records. Coal towns such as Vindex and Dodson sprang up, with boarding houses, stores and saloons to accommodate the miners who flooded the region for dangerous but relatively well-paid work. Many are ghost towns today.

The Mettiki coal mine in Garrett County, the state's largest, closed in 2006 after nearly three decades in operation. The company shifted miners and work to a new mine in West Virginia.

Now the future of one of the region's largest surface mines, located just south of Frostburg, is also uncertain. The Cabin Run mine, owned by Arch Coal, employed about 65 people in 2013, according to federal data.

The St. Louis-based company recently posted a $2 billion quarterly loss. In November it warned it could file for bankruptcy.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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Coal production in 2013 (in tons)

West Virginia: 112.8 million

Pennsylvania: 54 million

Virginia: 16.6 million

Maryland: 1.9 million

Alaska: 1.6 million

Tennessee: 1.1 million

Historic coal production in Md. (in tons)

2001: 4.6 million

2002: 5.1 million

2003: 5.1 million

2004: 5.2 million

2005: 5.2 million

2006: 5.1 million

2007: 2.3 million

2008: 2.9 million

2009: 2.3 million

2010: 2.6 million

2011: 2.9 million

2012: 2.3 million

2013: 1.9 million

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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