Republicans in Congress recently used the Congressional Review Act to kill an Obama-era regulation known as the Coal Stream Protection Rule. The rule prohibited coal mining companies from dumping waste into adjacent streams and required companies to prepare a plan for restoring damaged streams after mining is complete. In many cases, the physical damage to adjacent streams and toxic chemical by-products entering the water are the same streams suppling local communities with drinking water. The very same people often employed by these mining companies are, at the same time, drinking water poisoned by mining activities.
By repealing the Coal Stream Protection Rule, Republicans continue to present a false choice. Either you can have a (coal) job or clean, safe, and reliable drinking water. Proponents of coal mining (or other extractive industries) will argue environmental regulations create undue burden on mining operations and, therefore, result in fewer industry jobs. However, the coal industry in particular has suffered recently because the price of natural gas had made coal mining less attractive economically and not because of environmental regulations. Moreover, the argument says you can either have a job or clean drinking water but you can't possibly have both.
There is no doubt communities in Appalachia are struggling. Persistently high unemployment rates in communities where coal was the only game in town is a real issue for policymakers and planners alike. If congressional Republicans were serious about helping these communities they would seek policies to diversifying local economies, provide workforce training programs, and provide job placement services to help communities adapt to a changing economy. Instead, Republicans continue to pander towards corporate interests seeking to extract the last bit of profit from a dying industry at the expense of the constituents who sent them to Washington in the first place.
Let us consider an alternative solution that could provide hard hit communities with well paying jobs while also providing an environmental benefit. According to the Sierra Club, mountain top removal mining has damaged or destroyed 2,000 miles of streams. Many of these streams supply drinking water to nearby communities. What if Congress passed a spending bill or other legislation to encourage environmental remediation in areas impacted by mining operations? A 2011 report from the Brookings Institute estimates environmental remediation employs almost 60,000 nationwide. More recent market analysis estimates the industry employs 86,000. All told, the industry is valued between $13 billion and $15 billion. Federal investment in these communities to retrain unemployed coal workers for environmental remediation jobs and then putting them to work repairing damaged streams and improving water quality will bring well paying jobs and healthier communities hard hit by economic decline and disinvestment across coal country. Additionally, communities would save money on drinking water treatment thus allowing cash-strapped cities to spend money on other community services. Investing in environmental remediation would employ people in good paying jobs, improve drinking water quality and aquatic ecosystems, and improve public health.
These are the kinds of investments we should be making in our communities rather than doubling down on the failed policies of the past. Nobody should have to decide between a job and clean drinking water. It is possible to have both.