PITTSBURGH - After two days and almost two dozen hours of testimony, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have packed up, left Pittsburgh and headed back to the nation's capital, taking with them hundreds of impassioned comments regarding their proposed new limits on carbon emissions from the nations' power plants.
On Friday, the Ohio Valley was represented on both sides of the debate on the proposed EPA rules, which aim to cut the nation's carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030. States would have until 2018 at the latest to submit plans for meeting individual standards, either by themselves or in groups.
Among Friday's speakers was Mike Carey, vice president of governmental affairs for St. Clairsville-based Murray Energy Corp. - a company that's filed two separate lawsuits against the federal government in the past few months challenging EPA rules, including already finalized controls on new coal-fired power plants as well as the proposed rule that was the subject of this week's hearings.
"Recent Obama administration regulations have already done substantial damage to the coal-fired fleet, resulting in thousands of lost jobs across the United States and irreversible economic damage to communities that rely on coal for their living and their tax base," Carey said.
The hearings were held as another coal company, Alpha Natural Resources, announced plans Thursday to idle 11 southern West Virginia mines, in Mingo, Boone, Logan and Fayette counties, resulting in about 1,100 expected layoffs by mid-October. Company officials in their announcement laid some of the blame on increasing government regulation.
During his testimony, Carey cited an American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity study that estimates the EPA rule will reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by a mere 1 percent and reduce the world's average temperature by less than 0.02 degrees - at the same time putting coal miners out of work, inflating electricity bills and undermining the reliability of the electrical grid by retiring too much generating capacity with nothing to replace it.
"Not only will the proposal continue to harm American workers, families and our economy, it will provide no benefits in return," Carey said. "All pain for no gain is not sensible public policy."
But one local man, the Rev. Phillip Van Dam of Martins Ferry, testified in support of the regulations. He believes the region's poor health is directly tied to a history of carbon pollution.
"I am burying people because of asthma and lung cancer. ... People talk about losing jobs due to regulations; however, whenever there's a shift in the economy, there's dislocation. ... I am more concerned about when Kansas cannot grow wheat and millions of people are hungry," Van Dam said.
Several of those who opposed the rules Friday, including Richard Dunkel of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Division of Mining and Reclamation Director Tom Clarke, said meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions will take a worldwide effort, and it's foolish to believe other nations experiencing massive industrial growth will follow America's lead.
"It is a meaningless gesture that will have minimal impact on global CO2 emissions. ... Worldwide, the use of coal will grow," Clarke predicted, adding carbon emissions in China have increased 67 percent since 2005, and in India by 52 percent.
For many, criticism of the EPA proposal centered not around job loss but on their belief the rules are too weak to head off the effects of climate change.
"This is a timid proposal," said John Detwiler, an engineer who is a former Carnegie Mellon University professor. "At best, it begins to recognize that something needs to be done. ... What we need is a plan that begins to leave carbon in the ground."
Another speaker, Dustin White of Charleston, called himself a "former coal supporter," having grown up in Boone County, W.Va. But he believes at the age of 31, he's now middle aged because of exposure to pollution.
"Coal, from cradle to grave, is harmful to public health," White said. "I am living witness to people who are getting sick and dying from coal-related pollution. ... No one has a job that's more important than someone else's health."
After the pomp and circumstance of Thursday, when coal industry supporters and environmentalists alike staged opposing demonstrations outside the William S. Moorhead Federal Building where the hearings took place, Friday's proceedings were comparatively quiet.
Things outside remained quiet. Inside, lower turnout led officials to combine the two separate meeting rooms into one following the morning session and the list of speakers for the afternoon session ran out 20 minutes before the dinner break.
Although the public hearings - also held in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C. - are over, the EPA will still accept written comments on the proposal through Oct. 16.