Fox Serves As Mouthpiece For Mountaintop Mining Industry

››› ››› JOCELYN FONG & SHAUNA THEEL

In strikingly one-sided reports, Fox News assailed an anticipated regulation protecting streams from mountaintop coal mining waste. Among other misleading claims, Fox accused the Obama administration of punishing a contractor who said the rule would kill jobs, when in fact, extensive evidence indicates the contract was halted simply because the firm did shoddy work.

Fox Pushes GOP Conspiracy Theory Despite Contrary Evidence

Fox Suggests Contractor Was Fired For Saying Coal Regulation Would Cost Jobs. The Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) hired Polu Kai Services LLC (PKS) to conduct an environmental impact analysis of a forthcoming rule targeting stream pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining. The contractor prepared a draft analysis projecting 7,000 job losses, which was leaked to the Associated Press. OSM and PKS later ended the contract prematurely. Echoing Republican claims, Fox News correspondent Jim Angle said that "the administration was clearly displeased with the analysis it got and fired the contractor." Fox did not quote a single Democrat or environmental group in its two reports on the rule. [Fox News, Happening Now, 5/18/12]

Officials Were Unhappy With The Contractor Before Jobs Analysis Was Released. At no point did Fox acknowledge the great deal of evidence suggesting that the PKS contract was ended because the firm produced shoddy work. For instance, Democrats on the Natural Resources committee provided an email from an official at OSM who complained about the contractor prior to the release of the draft jobs analysis:

A little more than three months after beginning work, PKS backed out of an agreed-upon deadline and asked for a 90-day extension. In response, a senior OSM program analyst wrote the following email to her colleagues on Sept. 10, 2010: "I consider this move to be in bad faith and I have nothing good to say about this contractor. Their total lack of project management skills and disregard for our requirements is very disturbing." A little more than a month later, an

OSM civil engineer sharply criticized a draft chapter of the EIS on topography, writing in an email, "My overall impression is that very little research was done by the contractor in generating this document."The draft chapter containing estimates about jobs was not circulated for review until January 2011, more than two months after this comment. [Natural Resources Committee Democrats, 3/6/12]

State Officials Also Said The Contractor's Work Was "Inaccurate And Incomplete." Greenwire reported in October 2011 that "State regulators, many of them hostile to a new rule, also complained about the quality of early documents":

In February, OSM sent Polu Kai Services LLC a "cure notice," accusing the company of shoddy work on the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed rule. The letter threatening the consultant Kai with contract termination came after leaked documents prompted a firestorm over thousands of potential job losses. State regulators, many of them hostile to a new rule, also complained about the quality of early documents.

"The working draft EIS chapters fail to provide the information required by the [statement of work], do not comply with [the National Environmental Policy Act], and are not acceptable," said OSM's Feb. 8 letter to Polu Kai. [Greenwire, 10/24/11, via Nexis]

Democrats on the Natural Resources committee quoted the negative feedback from state agencies:

  • "I certainly hope that an EIS is not going to be developed based on this inaccurate and incomplete information contained in this document."--Bradley Lambert, deputy director, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, Nov. 1, 2010
  • "The analysis is insufficient for a document of this importance." --Kathy Ogle, geological supervisor, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Jan. 26, 2011
  • "The document displays very little depth of understanding of technical issues."--Thomas Clarke, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Jan. 26, 2011
  • "The logic [used] is not readily apparent and appears in many cases to be based upon erroneous assumptions, incorrect interpretations, and a lack of understanding of current programmatic practices one region to another."--Bruce Stevens, director, Indiana Division of Reclamation
  • "Without some serious modifications to the current geographical scope of this EIS as it relates to the Colorado Plateau, any conclusions made in Chapter 4 about impacts to the environment and the coal mining industry in Utah (and other parts of the Colorado Plateau) will be inaccurate."--Peter Brinton, environmental scientist, Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, Nov. 1, 2010
  • "The text for this section of the EIS in its entirety was taken from an EPA coalbed methane paper, and contains inherent errors as a result when applied to coal mining. The map associated with this inappropriate description in the original source is also incompatible with the maps generated for this EIS."--Dana Dean, associate director of mining, Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, Nov. 1, 2010. [Natural Resources Committee Democrats, 3/6/12]

Former PKS Staffer Said Dispute Was About Methodology, Not Politics. The Washington Free Beacon reported:

[Former PKS project manager Jose] Sosa, who left PKS in August 2011 to start a consulting firm, agreed that the environmental impact statement was not complete when it went public.

He said OSM disputed the high job loss estimates, but added that the dispute stemmed from differences in methodology rather than from political pressure.

"They were not happy with the numbers that were produced," Sosa said. "I don't think we were ever asked to change numbers directly. Discussions revolved around what methodology worked best. It was all based on science." [Washington Free Beacon, 3/21/10]

Fox Obscures Bush-Era Regulatory Rollback

Fox Suggests It's A Mystery Why Obama Administration Is Rewriting The Rule. Angle said, "Republicans have been investigating the process for about a year, Jon, and asking the administration why it decided to rewrite rules that were rewritten as recently as 2008." [Fox News, Happening Now, 5/18/12]

In Its Final Days, The Bush Administration Dismantled Previous Protections. From an August 2009 Charleston Gazette report:

Generally, the 1983 version of the buffer zone rule prohibited mining activities within 100 feet of perennial and intermittent streams. Coal operators could obtain waivers, but only if they could show their operations would not damage water quality or quantity.

The OSM and various state regulators never applied the buffer zone rule to valley fill waste piles. After a federal court ruled in 1999 that it did apply there, government regulators and coal lobbyists have been trying to eliminate the rule.

In December, the OSM issued a final rule change that exempted valley fills and similar waste dumps, such as slurry impoundments, from the 100-foot stream buffer. A companion rule required coal operators to minimize these fills and consider alternatives for waste disposal.

OSM officials said the rule "places new restrictions" on coal companies. But the agency's own studies showed coal operators would still bury another 724 miles of Appalachian streams by 2018.

Separate environmental groups filed two different federal court lawsuits challenging the Bush rule changes. [Charleston Gazette, 8/13/09, via Nexis]

Obama Administration Faced Lawsuits Over Bush Rule. From a January 2009 E&E News article:

Two environmental groups have sued the Bush administration over a rule that eased restrictions on mountaintop-removal mining.

The National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center say U.S. EPA and the Office of Surface Mining neglected to consider the "stream buffer zone" rule's effects on aquatic species and watersheds downstream from Appalachian mining operations.

[...]

This is the second lawsuit against the buffer rule. Shortly after it was finalized last month, Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment filed a lawsuit on behalf of six coal-country advocacy groups contesting its legality, saying the government failed to adequately assess the rule's environmental impacts. [E&E News, 1/16/09, via Nexis]

Scientists Agree That Enforcing Buffer Zone Is Best Way To Protect Streams. From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

These ecosystems are legally protected under the 1983 stream buffer zone (SBZ) rule, which prohibits mining companies from digging and dumping within 100 feet of any stream, but this rule is rarely enforced as written The scientific community overwhelmingly affirms this is the best method for protecting these waters. OSM agrees that implementation of the SBZ rule is "the best technology currently available" to protect stream environments, and their best means of executing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). [Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed 5/23/12, in-text citations removed for clarity]

Fox Never Mentioned That The Rule Targets Mountaintop Mining

Fox: "Lawmakers Say" The Draft Rule Would "Kill The Coal Industry." Angle said that the Obama administration is trying to "rewrite coal regulations in a way lawmakers say would kill the coal industry." [Fox News, Happening Now, 5/18/12]

Rules Are Only For New Surface Mining, Targeted At Mountaintop Mining. Greenwire reported that the stream protection rule under consideration would only "apply to new applications for surface coal mining permits and would not apply to existing coal mines," according to an Office of Surface Mining spokesman. Greenwire further noted that the rules are "for mountaintop-removal coal mining that would expand protection for waterways and require the restoration of dynamited areas." Mountaintop removal mining is one type of surface (as opposed to underground) mining. [Greenwire, 4/19/10]

Team Of Scientists Called For End To Mountaintop Mining Due To Environmental Damage. NPR reported:

A team of scientists says the environmental damage from mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia is so widespread, the mining technique should be stopped.

The scientific review of research on the effects of the practice, which dumps coarse rock down the mountainsides into nearby valleys, states that harmful chemicals such as sulfate and selenium are pervasive in streams below.

NPR's report included these pictures by A.D. Lemley of "Deformed fish larvae from mountaintop mining-impacted streams in Lincoln County, W.Va. The fish on top has two eyes on one side of its head. The lower fish has a deformed spine."

Source: NPR[NPR, 1/7/10]

Study: Birth Defects "Significantly Higher" In Mountaintop Mining Areas. From a study published in Environmental Research by West Virginia University and Washington State University professors, which found that from 1996-2003, the prevalence of all birth defects studied was "significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas compared to non-mining areas":

The prevalence rate ratio (PRR) for any birth defect was significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas compared to non-mining areas (PRR=1.26, 95% CI=1.21, 1.32), after controlling for covariates. Rates were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and 'other'. There was evidence that mountaintop mining effects became more pronounced in the latter years (2000-2003) versus earlier years (1996-1999.) Spatial correlation between mountaintop mining and birth defects was also present, suggesting effects of mountaintop mining in a focal county on birth defects in neighboring counties. Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks. Both socioeconomic and environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors. [Environmental Research, August 2011]

Study: Self-Reported Cancer Rates Significantly Higher In Mountaintop Mining Areas. From a study published in the Journal of Community Health by West Virginia University professors:

Mountaintop coal mining in the Appalachian region in the United States causes significant environmental damage to air and water. Serious health disparities exist for people who live in coal mining portions of Appalachia, but little previous research has examined disparities specifically in mountaintop mining communities. A community-based participatory research study was designed and implemented to collect information on cancer rates in a rural mountaintop mining area compared to a rural non-mining area of West Virginia. A door-door health interview collected data from 773 adults. Self-reported cancer rates were significantly higher in the mining versus the non-mining area after control for respondent age, sex, smoking, occupational history, and family cancer history (odds ratio = 2.03, 95% confidence interval = 1.32-3.13). Mountaintop mining is linked to increased community cancer risk. [Journal of Community Health, 7/24/11]

Study: Mountaintop Mining "Has Impaired The Aquatic Life In Numerous Streams In The Central Appalachian Mountains. A study conducted by the EPA of "37 small West Virginia streams (10 unmined and 27 mined sites with valley fills)" concluded that "Surface coal mining with valley fills has impaired the aquatic life in numerous streams in the Central Appalachian Mountains." [EPA, 7/8/08]

Study: There Is A "Clear Risk Of Increased Flooding" After Mountaintop Mining. From a study published in Environmental Geology by University of Kentucky professor Jonathan D. Phillips:

The potential impacts of valley fills associated with mountaintop removal/valley fill (MTR/VF) coal mining on downstream flooding in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and adjacent states are a subject of public debate and scientific uncertainty. This study explored two aspects of this issue. First, hydrologic indices of relative runoff production and surface and subsurface flow detention were applied to conditions typical of headwater and low-order drainage basins in eastern Kentucky. Results show that there is a clear risk of increased flooding (greater runoff production and less surface flow detention) following MTR/VF operations, and suggest that, on balance, valley fills are more likely to increase rather than decrease flood potential. However, there is a wide range of outcomes, qualitatively and quantitatively. Flood risks can be increased or decreased, and the degree of either may vary markedly. The effects of MTR/VF mining on downstream peak flows are highly contingent on local pre- and post-mining conditions, and it would be unwise to apply generalizations to specific sites. Second, the occurrence of flash floods downstream of MTR/VF operations when nearby unmined areas did not flood or had less severe floods has frequently been explained (without supporting data) in terms of locally greater precipitation. The likelihood of such short-range variability of storm precipitation is evaluated by applying the state probability function to NEXRAD radar estimates of precipitation for two 2001 storms which produced flash floods in eastern Kentucky. The spatial structure of the storm precipitation indicates that at the scale of the analysis (pixel size of approximately 2 km) large local variations in storm precipitation are unlikely--that is, the probability of nearby hollows or low-order drainage basins receiving substantially different storm precipitation totals is low. [Environmental Geology, 2004]

Selenium, Which Has Been Found Downstream Of Valley Fills, Can Cause Health And Reproductive Problems. From a report published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Services:

The "intermittent and ephemeral" valley streams appear and disappear with the seasons and rains. But they are the headwaters for steady-running "perennial" streams below, and the foundation for the broader forest ecosystem: most notably a breeding ground for insects that provide the biomass to sustain birds and other animal life. When those streams are destroyed, the effects are felt far beyond the immediate vicinity of the valley fill, and scientists say they are irreplaceable.

[...]

The most ubiquitous form of downstream contamination may be the heavy metal selenium, a common element associated with coal seams. Selenium is an essential nutrient in small amounts, but it bioaccumulates in tissue, and in high enough concentrations can cause health and reproductive problems in wildlife and humans. In 2003, the EPA's environmental impact assessment found significant elevations of selenium downstream from valley fills. [Yale Environment 360, 7/20/09]

Fox Hypes Phony "War On Coal"

Fox Refers To "What Many Perceive As The Obama Administration's War On Coal." After Shannon Bream referred to "what many perceive as President Obama's war on coal," Fox played video of Reps. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) expressing similar views. Fox did not quote a single Democrat or environmental group. [Fox News, Special Report, 5/18/12]

National Journal: Coal Industry Privately Acknowledges That Obama Administration "Inherited A Stack Of Obligations." A National Journal article noted that "a stack of court-ordered environmental regulations, some dating back 20 years" met EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson when she took office. The article also said: "Privately, coal chiefs and Republicans say they understand that Jackson inherited a stack of obligations and had to act." [National Journal, 9/22/11]

Bush Sr.'s EPA Chief: Previous Administrations Handed Regulatory "Grenades" To Obama. Greenwire reported in December 2010 that George H.W. Bush's EPA Administrator acknowledged that the Obama administration has legal obligations to enact regulations that were "left behind by the George W. Bush administration":

At a time of unprecedented rancor over the costs and benefits of U.S. EPA rules, the Obama administration has far less leeway than the agency's critics in Congress suggest, according to the man who led the agency under George H.W. Bush.

Many of the most costly new regulations were left behind by the George W. Bush administration, William Reilly told an audience at the National Press Club yesterday. Some of the rules were ordered by Congress but were never put in place, forcing EPA to settle with environmental groups. Others have court deadlines from when the last administration's policies were rejected in court.

"They're like little hand grenades that have been rolled out there by previous administrators, and now they're ticking," Reilly said. "They're very difficult, and some of them quite expensive, rules." [Greenwire, 12/17/10]

CRS: Coal Retirements "Caused By Cheap, Abundant Natural Gas As Much As By" Regulations. From an August 8 Congressional Research Service report:

The primary impacts of many of the rules will largely be on coal-fired plants more than 40 years old that have not, until now, installed state-of-the-art pollution controls. Many of these plants are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged in the price of competing fuel--natural gas--continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.

[...]

In short, the "train wreck" facing the coal-fired electric generating industry, to the extent that it exists, is being caused by cheap, abundant natural gas as much as by EPA regulations. As John Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation, recently stated: "These regulations will not kill coal... In fact, modeling done on the impacts of these rules shows that up to 50% of retirements are due to the current economics of the plant due to natural gas and coal prices." [Congressional Research Service, 8/8/11]

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