Senate advances controversial coal mining bill
The state senate has advanced a bill that could upend an ongoing legal challenge by two environmental groups seeking to restrict coal mining beneath a western Pennsylvania state park.
With the backing of senate GOP leadership, SB 624 was approved by a committee Monday in an 8-4 party line vote. The measure takes aim at a pending court case, which was first brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club. The two environmental groups are challenging Consol Energy’s 3,000-acre Bailey Mine extension. They argue it would damage 14 streams in and around Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.
Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson) is the prime sponsor.
“I understand the environmental groups and their opposition to mining, their opposition to gas and oil extraction,” he says. “But Pennsylvania’s jobs and economy are built on this.”
SB 624 says that if the state Department of Environmental Protection approves an underground mining plan, it shall not be considered “presumptive evidence” the mine could cause pollution. In other words, any plan approved by state regulators would automatically be presumed to not cause permanent damage to streams.
Scarnati says the bill reaffirms what DEP has been doing for many years.
“To follow current law is not blazing a new trail here,” he says.
The measure also applies retroactively to “all permits issued under the act that were the subject of an appeal heard by the Environmental Hearing Board after June 30, 2016”– a direct reference to the pending Consol case.
Joanne Kilgour, director of the Sierra Club PA Chapter, says the bill could be construed as an unconstitutional “special law,” written for the longwall mining industry. A decision in the case is expected from the state Environmental Hearing Board soon.
Kilgour says the bill undermines the court’s authority, in an attempt to score a win for Consol.
“When you have an actor, who may or may not have violated the law,” she says. “If they could just change the law underfoot, before the court makes a decision, our society would be in chaos.”
She also points to a $5,000 campaign contribution Scarnati received from Consol two weeks before he introduced the bill.
“It’s not to say campaign contributions aren’t a regular course of business in Harrisburg,” says Kilgour. “But the timing is concerning. It appears to be almost a quid pro quo.”
Scarnati dismisses the allegation.
“I’ve been receiving campaign contributions from Consol for 17 years,” he says.
Governor Tom Wolf’s spokesman says he opposes the measure. A spokesman for Consol did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.