Protests mark OSM meeting
HUNTINGTON - Federal mine regulators planned a day of bureaucratic discussions about stuff like cumulative hydrologic impact statements and performance evaluations of approved regulatory programs.
Coalfield residents had other ideas. They wanted to talk about strip mine blasts throwing rocks into their yards and coal operators burying streams with mine waste.
On Wednesday, a couple dozen activists took over discussion at the federal Office of Surface Mining's Appalachian Regional Coal Symposium.
Before the event, about 50 people from five states protested outside of the Radisson Hotel in Huntington.
Once the symposium got started, the group - carrying bright red and yellow signs that said, "Save our homes. Save our jobs. Stop mountaintop removal" - marched silently into a hotel meeting room during a welcome speech by OSM Director Kathy Karpan.
Karpan glanced over several times, but continued her presentation. "Welcome to you all," she said. "We'll get to you in a minute."
When Karpan introduced Secretary of State Ken Hechler, a vocal mountaintop removal opponent, the citizens applauded.
After Karpan finished, several young protesters presented her with a "Coalfield Citizens Bill of Rights," from the Washington-based Citizens Coal Council.
"The health, safety, and general welfare of coalfield residents must not be diminished or threatened in any way by the failure of state and federal regulatory agencies to fully and properly enforce the mining laws," the document says.
Many of the protesters left after the presentation to Karpan. But those who stayed didn't sit still for a panel discussion on environmental regulation of coal mining that included Blair Gardner, a lawyer for Arch Coal Inc.
Gardner defended mountaintop removal as a perfectly legal, and very efficient, form of surface mining.
Gardner added that his company's Samples Mine on Cabin Creek in eastern Kanawha County has cleaned up 100 acres of abandoned mines and fixed 20 miles of old highwalls at the site.
"What about what you've torn up?" asked James Weekley, a Logan County resident who lives near one existing and one proposed mountaintop removal mine at Blair.
"Why don't you come down and live in Blair?" Weekley told Gardner. "See what you've done to my community."
Weekley and other residents repeatedly interrupted Gardner's presentation.
Julian Martin, a teacher from Lincoln County, complained that strip mine valley fills are being allowed despite federal laws that prohibit polluting streams.
"What do you think they'd do to me if I filled in the creek next to my house?" Martin said. "They'd probably throw me in jail."
Patricia Bragg of Logan County said state regulators bend over backward to help the coal industry.
"The government and big industry are so immersed in West Virginia right now that we don't know where one starts and the other one ends," said Bragg, who works with the West Virginia Organizing Project.
OSM officials in the room, including agency Regional Director Al Klein, did not respond to any of the citizen concerns.
Eventually, Gardner begged to be allowed to continue.
"I was asked to speak for 10 minutes and I would like to have my 10 minutes," Gardner said. "I will skip lunch and stay here to talk with any of you, but I would like to get my remarks in first."
Tom FitzGerald, a lawyer and environmentalist from Kentucky, praised the citizens for their comments at the symposium.
"It has been refreshing to me to listen to some of the real concerns of the citizens of West Virginia about mining," FitzGerald said. "It's something that we should all be constantly cognizant of."
John Ailes, chief of the state Division of Environmental Protection's Office of Mining and Reclamation, said citizens and environmentalists have some valid questions about mountaintop removal.
Ailes said the state needs more information about longtime environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and a better plan for what will be done with land once it's mined out.
"Are the regulations adequate? Are there things we can improve?" Ailes said. "Those are things we're hoping to answer. I don't think the ship is in port totally on that issue."