FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky lawmakers thumbed their noses at federal regulators on Thursday by advancing a largely symbolic measure declaring the state a "sanctuary" exempt from Environmental Protection Agency oversight of its influential coal sector.
It was a bipartisan pileup as Republicans and Democrats joined the chorus denouncing the environmental agency.
"As the overreaching EPA impact settles in on us, it's costing us jobs, it's putting us in a very perilous situation," warned Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, a coalfield Republican sponsoring the anti-EPA resolution.
The resolution easily cleared the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. It now heads to the full Senate.
The popular but apparently unenforceable proposal declares Kentucky a "sanctuary state" out of reach of the the EPA's "overeaching regulatory power." Smith has acknowledged that the bill isn't likely to compel the EPA to change its ways.
It states that water quality standards set for coal mining and processing permits in Kentucky would be immune from federal regulation. It places jursdiction for environmental regulation with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the EPA Region 4 office in Atlanta, which oversees eight Southeastern states including Kentucky, said it's EPA policy not to comment on pending legislation.
Kentucky is one of the nation's top coal producers, and the sector is a key contributor to jobs and revenue in parts of the state's eastern and western tiers. Coal interests also wield considerable political influence in the state.
The anti-EPA resolution comes as bitterness toward federal oversight of coal has escalated.
The Obama administration's own experts estimate their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country, according to a government document recently obtained by The Associated Press.
David A. Gooch, president of Coal Operators & Associates Inc., a coal industry group based in Pikeville, told the Senate panel that the EPA is populated with "career bureaucrats that sit in a vacuum in an ivory tower ... and decided what the science should be" in its oversight of the coal industry.
Complaints cited in the Senate resolution include the EPA's citing of "scientifically unsubstantiated standards" when objecting to "valid" water permit applications for mining operations.
Prominent environmental activist Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said he understood the outpouring of frustration stemming from a "re-engaged" EPA. But rather than bashing the agency, the remedy is to look at changing mine designs to prevent pollution from fouling waterways, he said.
EPA has been restrained for much of the past 20 years from effectively doing the role that Congress assigned it under the Clean Water Act -- to ensure water pollution from mining operations is stopped, he said.
"I think EPA is acting well within the science," he said.
The bashing of EPA spread to another committee that approved another anti-EPA measure Thursday. The bill would exempt Kentucky mines producing coal used exclusively in the Bluegrass state from federal Clean Water Act requirements.
The measure, which unanimously cleared the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, set off a round of comments by lawmakers defending states' rights.
"We feel that the federal government does lack some of the authority to regulate everything that we do," said committee Chairman Jim Gooch Jr., D-Providence, the bill's sponsor.
Gooch initially decided to bypass a vote on his bill, but was persuaded to move it forward after sympathetic colleagues pressed for a vote.
Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the federal government "is driving this country into a big, big hole" by overregulating energy, health care and other sectors.
Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, complained that federal regulators are impeding states' rights and individual property rights.
"There comes a time when we as leaders and we as legislators have to push back," he said.
The Senate legislation is Senate Joint Resolution 99. The House legislation is House Bill 421.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)