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Underwood forms mountaintop removal task force

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.

In the last two years, citizens have complained more about mountaintop removal mining. Their complaints have drawn widespread media converage, including investigations by U.S. News and World Report magazine and ABC's Nightline. The issue also got front-page treatment two weeks ago in The New York Times.

Asked last year about the issue, Underwood said he had never read the U.S. News article and thought mountaintop removal was good because it provided flat land.

In early April, Underwood ignored the recommendations of his own environmental regulators and signed into law a bill that makes it easier for coal companies to dump mountaintop removal mine waste into streams.

The Wednesday task force announcement was made the same day Underwood testified in defense of the coal industry at a congressional hearing on the global climate treaty.

In his statement on the task force, Underwood also emphasized the coal industry's economic importance to the state.

"Given the employment and energy implications associated with this issue, we must fully examine the facts and determine the best course of action for the people of our state," he said.

"I believe we must balance the economic opportunities that coal mining provides today and the long-term economic future of the areas in which the mining occurs," he said.

Underwood press secretary Rod Blackstone said a big part of the task force's work will be to examine how land is used after mountaintop removal is finished.

A Gazette investigation found that most mountaintop removal mines in the state were not required to get a variance and show how they will develop land once it is flattened by mining.

"If there are opportunities for flat land and development after mountaintop removal, we need to make the most of those opportunities," Blackstone said. "We could do a better job of some strategic planning with regard to the future use of reclaimed land."

Blackstone said the task force will have between 11 and 15 members. Those members have not been named yet, he said. The governor said he will ask the group to report back to him by Dec. 1.


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