United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Friday he was disappointed by a federal judge's ruling to block the largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history.
Roberts said that Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II should have found a way to have any problems with the Arch Coal Inc. permit fixed, and at the same time avoid possible layoffs of UMW members at the operation.
"I'm very disappointed," Roberts said from UMW headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The miners are just caught dead in the middle."
Roberts' statements were a rare departure from the UMW leader's relative silence on the issue of mountaintop removal.
The UMW has led a national fight against tougher rules on air pollution from coal-burning power plants, and on global warming. But the union has, for the most part, stayed out of the public debate over mountaintop removal.
In October, Roberts testified before Gov. Cecil Underwood's task force on mountaintop removal, offering the UMW's official position on the matter.
Roberts called for mountaintop removal to remain legal, but for regulators to crack down on the practice. Among other things, Roberts said coal operators should be required to plan post-mining economic development, control damage to homes and communities near mines, and pay adequate compensation when they bury streams under valley fills.
"I'm not an advocate of knocking every mountain in West Virginia down," Roberts said. "Quite frankly, we ought to take an assessment of how much coal should be mined this way, but we could have done that in a lot more intelligent way.
"These jobs should be maintained," he said. "But at the same time, we shouldn't be knocking people's houses down."
The UMW did not officially sanction a protest against Haden outside the federal courthouse in Charleston on Friday morning.
About 200 UMW members took the day off from Arch Coal with pay, instead of seeking a union-sanctioned "memorial period," or a day off without pay. In an union effort to tone down the event, UMW employees and paid organizers were urged not to attend the event.
Roberts said, though, that he supported his members' rights to speak out against Haden's ruling.
"I think those people were just expressing their frustration with the ruling," Roberts said. "If it was my job, I'd probably be down there, too. If it was anybody else's job in West Virginia, they'd probably be there, too."