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Coal industry puts on best face for tour

CLOTHIER - On one end of the Dal-Tex complex, huge shovels and dozers rip apart mountains and bury streams with mine waste. Like most active strip mines, it looks like a moonscape.

Over the hill, alfalfa, yellow clover and blackberry bushes dot green hillsides. Turkey and deer scamper about, and ducks splash around the wetlands.

This is reclaimed land, a side of mountaintop removal coal industry officials say the public today doesn't hear or see enough about.

Arch Coal Inc., Dal-Tex's parent company, showed off the operation on Monday, the first of a three-day, state-sponsored tour to examine the controversial type of strip mining.

About 65 people piled into vans and rumbled through the 2,300-acre Dal-Tex complex in Logan County for a first-hand look at what has caused a stir in public hearings, courtroom battles and now, a regulatory fight with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"I hope you're here with an open mind," Dal-Tex general manager Mark White told tour participants. "I hope you're here to better understand the importance of mining to our society, and not just to get ammunition to hurt our industry and our jobs."

The tour is sponsored by the state Division of Environmental Protection.

Two of the four phases of the tour focuses on reclamation work, and only one limited trip showed participants active mine pits. The fourth was a presentation on coal's economic impact on the state.

During one of the reclamation segments, Larry Emerson, director of environmental performance for Dal-Tex, explained the company's efforts to replant hardwood trees on a mountaintop removal mine site.

Dal-Tex has planted more than 27,000 oaks and other hardwoods at the site in the last two years, Emerson said.

Company experts tried fencing them in or planting them in plastic tubes to keep out deer and other animals that feed on the saplings.

Still, the company reports, only about half of the trees survived.

"There's certainly room for improvement," Emerson said. "But it's not too bad, either."

One problem is that the federal strip mine law places priority on getting grasses and other cover going early in the reclamation process to protect against soil erosion.

But the grasses and other cover require a neutral soil (strip mines often mix their own "topsoil substitute" rather than segregate topsoil during mining), while trees need a more acidic soil to thrive.

"More than likely, the trees can't compete with the grasses," said state Division of Forestry Director Bill Maxey, who went along on the tour.

Emerson said Dal-Tex is trying to find a way to meet the mining law's goals of protective cover, and get hardwood trees to grow.

At some places along the grassy hills of the reclaimed sites, grass and cover have disappeared. Erosion of soil is clearly visible. Coal company crews have heavy equipment in those areas, trying to fix the problems.

Coal company officials say those aren't major obstacles. But regulators say such incidents are common, at least during early phases of reclamation work.

"In a steep area like that, they might have to do something once every year," said Joe Parker, assistant chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. "But once the vegetative cover is established, it will be less and less until it comes back entirely."

During the session on coal's economic impact, Dal-Tex's White said coal is responsible for one of every five jobs in the state, and most of the tax base and jobs in coalfield communities.

"We are a highly regulated and highly taxed industry," White said.

White also said environmentalists who oppose mountaintop removal should look at their own everyday lives before they attack the industry too harshly.

"Every time you flick on a light, microwave or refrigerator, you use electricity and you encourage more mining of coal," White said. "Some day we might have a better alternative than coal. Right now, we don't."

Six members of a 16-member gubernatorial mountaintop removal task force, which was named Friday, attended the tour. Marshall University President J. Wade Gilley, the panel's chairman, did not attend.

Two representatives of the West Virginia Development Office rode along on the tour to scout out flat land that could be used for new business and industry.

"There's a great need in West Virginia for flat land," said agency Deputy Director Dana Davis.

"There are some mine sites where it would be feasible, and some where it would not," Davis said. "But if there are sites where industrial and commercial developments are possible, that should be part of the mining and reclamation plan."

Logan County resident Jack Caudill, who attended the tour, saw things a little differently. He said residents near mountaintop removal deal with blasting, dust, noise and water pollution.

"It's pretty up there," Caudill said, pointing to a reclaimed hillside. "But it's not like that down in the communities where people live.

"I'm not trying to put anybody out of a job," said Caudill, a former miner who lives in Taplin and works with the West Virginia Organizing Project. "If they can do this safely and not bother people, and create jobs, hey, that's great."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward, call 348-1702


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