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UMW members protest mine ruling

Frankie Stover has worked at Arch Coal Inc.'s Dal-Tex mountaintop removal complex for 14 years, and he doesn't want a federal judge to cost him his job.

So Stover joined about 200 other United Mine Workers members at the federal courthouse in Charleston on Friday to protest against Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II.

On Wednesday, Haden issued a preliminary injunction that could block a new permit for the Dal-Tex mine until September.

"Haden's butting in where he doesn't belong," Stover said.

The judge's ruling halts permits for Dal-Tex that were issued by the state Division of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We don't need a DEP or a Corps of Engineers if the federal judge is always going to overrule them," Stover said.

UMW member Keith Curtis went even further in his criticism of Haden.

"Who's to say this judge is the one honest man in the world?" Curtis said. "Who's to say he can't be bought off?"

Angry miners gathered early Friday morning along the sidewalk and steps in front of the Virginia Street building. They waved signs that said, "Hard-Hearted Haden" and "For Hire: One Really Big Shovel and Experienced Driver." Passing drivers honked their horns, and many gave the miners a thumbs-up signal.

"You can't find another job in the state that pays what these mining jobs pay," said Curtis, an 11-year employee of Dal-Tex.

"We put a tax base into this state like you wouldn't believe," Curtis said. "If you pull coal out of Logan County or out of Boone County, you're not going to have any industry."

Terry Vance, chairman of the mine committee for UMW Local 2935, said the media has ignored the possible impact on coal miners and their families if mountaintop removal is scaled back. Vance and other miners singled out the Gazette's coverage, saying it was especially one-sided.

"You need to take a good look around at what you're impacting," Vance said. "We're people, not crawdads or spotted salamanders."

Friday's rally was the first major UMW action in defense of mountaintop removal, and Vance promised it wouldn't be the last.

"This is just the opening salvo of what we're going to do," Vance said. "We're not going to go into the ranks of the unemployed quietly."

UMW member Steen Bazzilla said he doesn't mind the judge looking closely at the Dal-Tex permit, but thinks Haden should have allowed the mining to continue while he heard arguments in the case.

"I want to keep my job," Bazzilla said. "We all need to get together and do this right."

Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining wants the 3,100-acre permit to expand its Dal-Tex operation into Pigeonroost Hollow near Blair, Logan County.

Company officials say they have run out of coal to mine on existing permits, and may have to shut down the operation without the new permit. Already, 13 workers at Dal-Tex's Monclo preparation plan have been laid off.

Haden ruled on Wednesday that environmental groups' lawyers have made a good case so far that the Pigeonroost permit violates federal and state mining rules, and needs additional review by DEP and the Corps.

The judge stayed the permit until he can hold a trial on a larger case over an alleged "pattern and practice" of mountaintop removal permit violations. That trial is scheduled for early September.

In his 47-page preliminary-injunction order, Haden wrote: "Hobet presented evidence demonstrating significant harm to the company, workers and the local economy if the permit is further delayed."

White, the Dal-Tex general manager, testified that the company has lost $1 million a month since July 1998 because of permit delays. White also told Haden that the company may close the mine, rather than suffer continued losses, a move that would cost more than 300 workers their jobs.

"Hobet has made a significant investment in the [Pigeonroost Hollow] mine, considering the cost of the operation itself, the cost of purchasing homes around the proposed mine, and preparing the permit applications," Haden wrote. "Moreover, the dragline alone is a significant investment and, if idled, downtime would be costly.

"Finally, Hobet adduced evidence of current and proposed layoffs, caused by the delay in mining operations at Spruce Fork," he wrote.

However, Haden ruled that these harms "are purely temporary economic harms," as opposed to the "imminent and irreversible" harm to the environment if the mining were allowed to start before the trial and a final decision in the case.

"Destruction of the unique topography of Southern West Virginia, and of Pigeonroost Hollow in particular, cannot be regarded as anything but permanent and irreversible," Haden said.

On Thursday, lawyers for Arch Coal appealed Haden's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It is not clear how long that appeal might take.

In a prepared statement, Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer said the company was "both shocked as well as disappointed" by Haden's ruling.

"This decision will result in substantial harm to Dal-Tex, its employees and vendors, as well as to the communities where our people work and live," Leer said.

"The court's characterization of these harms as ëpurely temporary economic harms' does not recognize the human impact of this decision.

"In reality, the decision means that a majority of the employees at our Dal-Tex mine have now had their jobs and their very livelihoods cast into serious doubt," Leer said.

"In the best case, the timing of the permit delays will require substantial and extended layoffs this year. In the worst case, this decision may necessitate the immediate shut down of the mine except for reclamation activity."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.


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