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Bush staffers tour mines

President Bush’s top environmental adviser on Thursday toured a Boone County mountaintop removal mine as part of a “fact-finding mission” to the state’s coalfields.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, also met with various industry officials.

Connaughton said the White House is closely watching the latest federal court lawsuit over mountaintop removal.

“We’ve been tracking that,” he said after having breakfast with business leaders at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s office on Kanawha Boulevard.

“We’re paying attention to it,” Connaughton said. “We’ll see what the court does.”

In the case, environmentalists allege that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally approved the burial of hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams through a streamlined permit process intended only for activities that cause minimal environmental damage.

“I’ll be exploring some of those facts on the ground,” Connaughton said when asked about the allegation. “But I’m not going to comment on the corps’ policy determinations. ... Obviously, the court is looking at that to see if we have handled that properly.”

Over the next two weeks, lawyers in the case are filing a series of legal briefs that could lead to a major ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin.

Already, Goodwin has blocked the corps’ approval of a small valley fill proposed by a subsidiary of Massey Energy.

At the Chamber breakfast Thursday morning, Connaughton offered a spirited defense of the Bush administration’s environmental policies. He also harshly criticized the media, saying that the story of major improvements in environmental quality over the last 30 years seldom makes it to the public.

“The greatest strength of America is that the government doesn’t own the media,” Connaughton said. “It’s also our greatest curse.”

He added that, “Every indicator [of environmental quality] has not only improved over the last 30 years. It has massively improved.”

Speaking to about two dozen industry executives, lobbyists and lawyers, Connaughton praised several Bush policies that have been harshly criticized by environmental groups.

He said, for example, that the administration’s air pollution proposals are at the heart of “the most progressive period of clean air initiatives in history.”

Connaughton said his first three tasks in 2001 were to increase domestic energy production, learn how to use domestic energy sources “cleanly,” and develop a strategy for dealing with climate change.

“There is no state that exemplifies that set of issues more than West Virginia,” Connaughton said.

In West Virginia, he said, the administration focused on rewriting the “fill rule,” a change that removed a Clean Water Act prohibition on valley fills. Also, he said, he worked on reissuing the streamlined corps’ permit process that is now being challenged in court, and on issuing a draft environmental impact study on mountaintop removal.

These efforts, he said, were aimed at increasing coal production and “making more progress toward sustaining the natural heritage of this state.”

Reporters were encouraged to hear Connaughton’s breakfast remarks, but were not invited on the mine tour later in the day.

Jeff Jarrett, director of the federal Office of Surface Mining, and two top corps officials — Assistant Secretary of the Army J.P. Woodley and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Dunlap — accompanied Connaughton.

Jack Gerard, president of the National Mining Association, and several officials from the West Virginia Coal Association were also scheduled to take part in the tour.

The group was to visit an underground mine, and then tour Arch Coal Inc.’s Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln County line, officials said.

Representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service — federal agencies that have been more critical of mountaintop removal — were not invited to attend. Neither were representatives of West Virginia environmental organizations.

Dana Perino, a press spokeswoman for Connaughton, said he talks regularly with EPA and Fish and Wildlife officials.

Perino said Connaughton has an “open-door policy” and would be happy to meet with environmentalists to discuss mountaintop removal.

“It’s important to understand the issue from all sides,” Perino said.


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