Gov. Cecil Underwood announced Wednesday he will form a task force to examine the effects of mountaintop removal strip mining.
The governor said he will invite representatives from the Legislature, environmental and citizens groups, organized labor, higher education, regulatory agencies and the coal industry to serve of the Task Force on Mountaintop Mining Practices.
"West Virginia citizens and government leaders are looking for information and answers regarding this type of coal mining," Underwood said in a prepared statement issued late Wednesday afternoon.
"For that reason, I shall assemble citizens who hold different perspectives to review these mining practices and provide conclusions and recommendations to the people of West Virginia," the governor said.
Convention strip mining chips away at the sides of hills to remove coal seams underneath. In mountaintop removal mining, huge earth-moving machines shave off entire tops of hills to remove coal seams that run the length of ridges.
Generally, the 1977 federal strip mine law requires coal companies to return land to its approximate original contour, or so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration" of land before mining.
Mountaintop removal is allowed under an exception to this rule meant to promote future development on land flattened out by mining. To qualify for this variance, coal companies are supposed to submit detailed plans for the future development of mined land.
Strip mining has grown from a small fraction, about one-tenth, of West Virginia coal production 30 years ago to a third of the state's production today.
At the same time, mountaintop removal has boomed.
Last year, mountaintop removal accounted for two-thirds of the acreage permitted for strip mining, according to state Division of Environmental Protection records.
The 12,565 acres permitted for mountaintop removal in 1997 was nearly six times the acreage permitted for mountaintop removal in 1990, according to DEP records.