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Mountaintop removal study 'a sham and a shame'

Coalfield residents and environmental activists Thursday blasted the recommendations of a 4 1/2-year mountaintop-removal mining study as a Bush administration gift to the coal industry.

Julia Bonds of Whitesville called the study proposals "a blueprint for the continued assault on the people of Appalachia."

"The scientific evidence in the report shows that mountaintop removal is environmentally insane," Bonds said. "But the recommendation by this administration is to make it easier for the coal companies."

Bonds was among several dozen coal industry critics who dominated the second of two hearings federal officials held in the region this week to gather public opinion on their "Environmental Impact Statement," or EIS, and its recommendations.

At Thursday's hearing in Charleston, environmental groups got their members out in much greater numbers than they did for the earlier meeting, held Tuesday in Hazard, Ky.

Residents of Boone, Raleigh, Mingo and other Southern West Virginia counties complained of the noise and dust from blasting, the loss of streams buried by valley fills and the fear of flooding from overloaded sediment ponds or unsafe slurry impoundments.

"I just don't like the way they're tearing the mountains up and filling the hollows in," said James Maynard of Delbarton in Mingo County.

Donna Price of Dorothy, Raleigh County, said, "I think the EIS is a sham and a shame.

"These agencies have failed in their duty to prevent this irresponsible destruction of our land and our water."

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, praised the government study as a "tremendous effort" that he said "validates the solid practices of eastern mining over the years.

"What we've been doing in West Virginia is right," Raney said.

Jeremy Muller, director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, disagreed with Raney's assessment of mountaintop removal and the 5,000-page study. The study documents mining's destruction of streams and forests, Muller said. But it ends with no recommendations for action to halt that damage, he said.

"This is a joke," Muller said. "But, unfortunately, the joke is on the citizens of the coalfields."

In late May, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies released the long-awaited study and started a 90-day public-comment period. The study is available on the Internet at www.epa.gov/reg3/mtntop. Written comments are being accepted through Aug. 29.

Under a court settlement with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, federal officials were supposed to finish the report by December 2000.

Initially, the goal of the study was to consider new rules that would "minimize the potential for adverse" impacts from mountaintop removal. But, once the Bush administration took office, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles - a former mining lobbyist - changed the focus toward streamlining the permit process for coal operations.

Under the administration's preferred alternative, mountaintop removal's valley fills would be exempted from a stream buffer-zone rule. Agencies would come up with a single mining application that companies would submit to obtain all of the various permits now required by state and federal law.

During both hearings this week, coal industry officials said that alternative didn't go far enough. They said they support a different proposal that would give state agencies even more say over mining permits, and put federal officials further out of the picture. The industry's favored alternative would also assume that all valley fills are eligible for less rigorous "nationwide" Clean Water Act permits intended only for activities that cause less than minimal environmental damage.

In his presentation Thursday afternoon, Raney said the alternative would "allow local people to solve local problems."

The hearing was protected by tight security. All those attending had to go through metal detectors, and Charleston police stood guard at the doors.

Just outside the door, Bill Bissett of the public relations firm Charles Ryan Associates handed out "Friends of Coal" stickers.

Inside, one employee each from OSM, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection sat on the stage to listen to comments.

During the three-hour afternoon session, coal industry supporters paraded to the stage one after the other. As they did during Tuesday's hearing in Kentucky, mining proponents outnumbered critics 3 to 1.

Diana Wood of Beckley said that she sees the paperwork coal companies go through to obtain permits in her job at a mining company office.

"I don't understand a lot of it, but I can tell you that there's a lot of paperwork already," Wood said. "We just want to work. There are enough regulations already. We're regulated to death."

Wesley Ball, a miner from Chapmanville, told the regulators: "It's hard enough to mine it with the regulations and safety and all, without you all on us."

Ted Hapney, a lobbyist for the United Mine Workers union, said he wanted to correct media reports that he said misstated the union's position on the issue.

"We believe that jobs provided in the coal industry are worth fighting for," Hapney said. "At the same time, we support strong regulation and enforcement."

During the evening session, a half-dozen coal industry lobbyists and consultants criticized specific portions of the mining study. But few rank-and-file miners attended, and anti-mountaintop removal speakers outnumbered industry supporters 3 to 1.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the state coal association, said he was not disappointed by the evening's turnout.

"It appeared to be balanced in terms of numbers," Hamilton said. "I think the industry was well represented."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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