It's hard not to sympathize with the miners and their family members who showed up at a recent hearing in Pittsburgh on mountaintop mining. These are precarious economic times, and a good job is worth keeping.
But that doesn't mean society should forgo sensible rules on industries that have a big impact on people. Imagine the local water authority without purification standards. Imagine the regional power plant without clean-air standards. Imagine bridges that didn't meet engineering safety designs.
None of these ways of doing business is inherently anti-job, but they are rooted in the notion that reasonable laws are necessary for the public good. So it is with mountaintop removal mining.
That is the aggressive, efficient method for digging coal that has been controversial in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Because of a streamlined permitting process, companies are able to skim off vast tracts of forest, remove the coal and dump mining waste in adjacent valleys without undergoing individual review -- sometimes with disastrous effects on water quality, wildlife habitat and communities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that between 1985 and 2001 mountaintop mining buried 724 miles of streams and degraded 1,200 miles more in West Virginia. The industry says Appalachia's mountaintop mines yield 130 million tons of coal a year, most of which generates electricity for 24.7 million customers in the east and south.
Such mining is no longer solely the concern of nearby victims or conservationists, sportsmen and outdoors lovers. The Environmental Protection Agency this month held up 79 applications for mountaintop mining permits, saying they would violate the Clean Water Act.
In June the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior mandated a modification of the nationwide permit for such mining in a six-state Appalachian region. The Army Corps' Oct. 15 hearing in Pittsburgh, and five others elsewhere that week, were held for the purpose of taking comments on two tougher, yet legitimate ways to deal with mountaintop mining.
One is to prohibit use of the national permit to authorize dumping of rock and soil into surface waters. The other is to suspend its use altogether and require individual permit reviews for such mining operations. Either would be a better approach to an anything-goes policy that is the height of environmental recklessness.
Coal mining jobs are a good thing, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Their impact and their method are part of a larger social equation. It's time that the federal government applied individual review and stricter oversight to mountaintop mines, for the greater good of all Americans.