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Groups seek federal takeover of mining enforcement

Read the petition

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Eighteen groups are urging the Obama administration to take over enforcement of strip-mining rules in West Virginia, saying state regulators have for years failed to properly police the coal industry.

The groups filed a formal petition asking the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to step in, citing what they said are longstanding problems at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In a 102-page petition, the groups -- ranging from the Sierra Club to the League of Women Voters -- allege that the DEP has not completed required inspections, not fixed chronic staffing shortages, issued and renewed permits for operators with unabated violations, and not taken tough enough enforcement actions to end environmental violations.

"These failures can no longer be tolerated," says the petition, signed by National Wildlife Federation lawyers and Joe Childers, a Kentucky attorney who was considered by President Obama as a possible OSM director.

The petition is the latest action in the continuing campaign by citizens, environmental organizations and public interest groups to try to end mountaintop removal mining and otherwise more strictly regulate the Appalachian coal industry.

About a dozen representatives of the groups gathered Monday morning outside the OSM's Charleston office to deliver the petition and hold a news conference calling on federal officials to act.

"West Virginia is a wholly owned subsidiary of the coal industry, and as long as that's the case, West Virginia will not comply with federal laws to protect the environment," said author and activist Denise Giardina, who joined in the event.

Two State Police troopers and a Capitol security officer monitored the event from a church parking lot across the street from the OSM office, and a larger contingent of police was waiting on the group when it marched to the Capitol intending to deliver a copy of the petition to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, states are allowed to regulate strip mining within their borders. The OSM, part of the Interior Department, sets minimum standards and is charged with ensuring states are doing a good job or taking over the job if they're not.

Congress also allowed citizens to petition the OSM to review particular problems with state regulatory agencies and to ask federal officials to step in to correct lax state enforcement.

In West Virginia, citizen pressure in 2000 prompted the DEP and the OSM to come up with federal funding to help hire more strip-mine inspectors and in 2001 -- pushed by a citizen lawsuit -- the DEP beefed up its abandoned mine cleanup division to avoid a potential OSM takeover of that program.

Still, the OSM continues to cite what it says are staffing problems at the DEP, and citizen groups continue to argue that the state's program is inadequate to clean up mine sites abandoned by operators since the 1977 law was passed.

Roger Calhoun, director of the OSM's Charleston office, referred questions about the new petition to an agency spokesman in Washington, D.C.

"OSM appreciates and takes seriously the concerns of all citizens living and working in coalfield communities," said that OSM spokesman, Christopher Holmes.

"We have discovered that often the most qualified people to report on a potential problem are the ones who are closest to them, and that is the basis of our system of handling citizen complaints," Holmes said. "We have not had the opportunity to look at the specifics of the petition filed today, but we assure everyone that we will examine all of their concerns and handle them in a manner appropriate to the Surface Mining Act."

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he and his staff are just now beginning to review the petition, but that he does not believe there is evidence to support a federal takeover of the state program.

"I respect the process," Huffman said. "I'm all about the American way, and this petition is a legitimate process for dealing with situations where you do not agree with how the state's doing its job. But obviously I disagree with the whole concept that it's necessary to take this kind of actions."

Huffman acknowledged that the OSM continues to raise questions about whether the DEP has adequate staffing but said that mining practices and regulation of the industry have improved greatly since the federal law was passed.

"It's not fair to not acknowledge the progress that society has made," Huffman said. "I don't think that overall the evidence is compelling that we're getting worse."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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