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Logan County leaders argue against Haden mine ruling

Art Kirkendoll doesn't understand how a federal judge could call the layoff of more than 300 Logan County coal miners "purely temporary economic harms."

So Kirkendoll, president of the county commission, and other Logan County leaders have launched an all-out campaign against Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II, environmentalists, newspapers and anybody else who questions mountaintop removal.

"I think this has gotten totally out of hand," Kirkendoll said.

Kirkendoll and Logan County business leaders led a group of residents who on Wednesday morning protested outside the offices of The Charleston Gazette.

"The true story that should be told is that the overwhelming majority of people from the area in which this process is taking place, such as Logan County, in fact support this method of coal removal," the Logan County Coal Vendors Association said in a letter to the newspaper.

A week ago, Haden issued a preliminary injunction that halted a new permit for Arch Coal's Dal-Tex mountaintop removal operation. Haden said there was enough evidence that the permit was illegal to warrant stopping it until a full trial on the case in September.

Since then, coal miners have protested outside the federal courthouse, Arch Coal has announced it will close Dal-Tex and put more than 300 miners out of work, and Logan County officials have geared up for a fight.

On Tuesday, a headline in The Logan Banner screamed: "This is war." An accompanying article compared the mountaintop removal battle to the United Mine Workers' fight to organize the southern coalfields and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

"More than 60 years has passed since Logan County miners fought with government troops over control of the southern West Virginia coalfields," wrote Banner Managing Editor Michael Sisco. "The Logan County Commission fired the first volley Monday night in what they promise will be the second Battle of Blair Mountain.

"But unlike the historic and tragic battle of the 1920s, the enemy is not renegade coal companies backed by the U.S. government. According to commission President Art Kirkendoll, the enemy this time is out-of-state environmentalists backed by a court order which has placed the region's coal industry in serious jeopardy."

During the protest at the Gazette's offices, Kirkendoll and three other Logan County leaders came to the newsroom to discuss their complaints with a reporter and an editor.

County Administrator Paul Hardesty said the group's main complaint is with Haden.

"Where he said the economic impact was ëtemporary,' that's the part we have the biggest problem with," Hardesty said.

In his 47-page ruling, Haden described economic harms to Arch Coal, its employees and the Logan area as "purely temporary economic harms" compared to what he called "permanent and irreversible harms" if mining were allowed to start before the overall case is resolved.

Haden noted testimony from Arch Coal experts that the total economic losses from the withholding of the permit through September is more than $20 million.

"This number included lost compensation to production and supervisory employees, lost compensation to contractors for services, lost income to vendors, and lost income to mineral right owners," Haden wrote. "Projected lost tax revenue to West Virginia was calculated at over one and a half million dollars during the delay period."

The judge wrote, however, that the state Division of Environmental Protection appears to be violating the federal approximate original contour reclamation rule, and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not performed a required environmental impact study of the Dal-Tex permit proposal.

"It is apparent that, in the face of such serious and complex legal questions presenting imminent and irreversible environmental harm, the public interest favors presentation of the status quo until the Court is able to rule finally on the merits at trial," Haden wrote.

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

Kirkendoll and Hardesty said they have read Haden's ruling, but haven't asked Arch Coal officials why the company can't fix the problems Haden cited in the Dal-Tex permit.

The pair also said the controversy over mountaintop removal is making coal companies put more effort into trying to plan post-mining developments on mining sites. The Gazette's coverage, and the environmental group lawsuit before Haden, included allegations that most mountaintop removal permits did not contain post-mining development plans required by federal law.

"We're not saying they're perfect," Hardesty said of the coal companies. "They kind of skirted that before, and this is helping to bring change."

Kirkendoll added, "I think the coal companies have finally said they will sit down and talk with the public."

Gazette Editor James A. Haught said, "The state regulators have been violating federal law for years by not requiring beneficial development on mountaintop removal sites. Why should everyone be angry at the Gazette for pointing out a violation of the law?"

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


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