COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Coal interests that a veteran environmental regulator says played a role in his forced resignation have contributed about $50,000 to Republican Gov. John Kasich since he took office — a fraction of the well-funded politician's re-election campaign haul.
The industry's larger financial investment over the past three years appears to have been in the GOP-dominated state Legislature, where associates of the state's two most powerful coal firms — Boich Cos. and Murray Energy — have directed nearly $170,000 since 2011, according to an Associated Press review of state campaign finance filings.
State lawmakers hold sway over the state's clean energy quotas and other environmental laws.
George Elmaraghy, a 39-veteran of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email widely distributed last week that his departure was being forced by Kasich and Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally after "considerable pressure" from the coal industry. Elmaraghy headed Ohio EPA's Division of Surface Water, which issues permits for mining and other activities.
"Because of the industry's interpretation of the federal Clean Water Act and state water pollution control laws, DSW staff worked under difficult conditions but you have done your jobs honorably," Elmaraghy wrote.
The administration declined to discuss Elmaraghy's personnel situation but defended the integrity of Ohio EPA's permitting program. Nally rejected a request Thursday by Elmaraghy to reverse his resignation, which Elmaraghy says was forced.
Data compiled by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics show coal companies and executives, energy companies operating coal-fired power plants in the state and others have donated more than $500,000 to Kasich's state campaign coffers — the bulk of that coming during the 2010 election cycle.
Kasich has amassed political contributions totaling more than $5.3 million since 2011, of which just under $50,000 came from interests that could readily be identified as having a coal interest. The institute found about $35,000 came from electric utilities, the other $15,000 from mining.
Boich and Murray executives and family members also have given $27,000 to the state Republican party, and Wayne Boich Jr. gave $10,000 to the National Federation for Independent Business since 2011, records show
The head of an association representing Ohio's coal industry rejects the idea that coal companies — or their campaign contributions — might have played a role in Elmaraghy's resignation.
"The Ohio Coal Association does not have any influence over personnel decisions made by state agencies," President Zane T. Daniels said. "We have and will continue to work with state and federal regulators on a day-to-day basis to ensure we're operating within the perimeters of the Clean Water Act."
Jed Thorp, a former Ohio EPA employee who now heads the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is prone to believe Elmaraghy.
"Having worked over there for five years, I'm inclined to take him at this word," Thorp said. "I just heard (Murray Energy CEO) Bob Murray complain to the Legislature about the EPA not issuing permits in a timely manner a few weeks ago. I've spoken with all sorts of people over there in the division. The consensus is that's probably why he was let go."
The Sierra Club is among the state's most politically generous environmental groups, giving some $3,000 to legislative candidates since 2011. It wields its most significant influence on the national stage. Its Super PAC contributed $1.2 million directly to candidates and did $1.9 million in outside spending in 2012, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In that year, Boich and Murray made political donations of $1.9 million, all to candidates, the center calculated.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said criticism surrounding Elmaraghy's departure was being fueled by "the Democrat political attack machine."
"Fortunately for Ohio, their style of politics doesn't rule the day anymore," he said. "What does rule the day is the administration's common sense approach to energy, which seeks a balanced fuel mix for Ohio: coal, gas and alternatives. That can help keep prices low and, with sound regulations, protect people and the environment."
He said "environmental extremists" want policies that will cost eastern Ohio coal mining families jobs.
Republican strategist Terry Casey said the philosophical tug of war between industry and environment goes back a long way in Ohio.
"Politically, Al Gore lost badly in 2000 in eastern and southern Ohio over some of these economic issues and questions," he said. "Some have debated whether people and their jobs are more important and valued than some salamanders in a creek in eastern Ohio. And how much are consumers willing to pay in higher electric costs to satisfy the environmental desires by some interest groups?"