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Senate praises mining bill; citizens call it illusion

In a study of sharp contrasts, the Senate Wednesday called the mountaintop removal bill on passage stage today in the House, "a good compromise," and overwhelmingly passed a resolution endorsing surface mining.

Hours later, a coalition of environmental and citizen groups decried the bill as being virtually useless.

"We think the whole bill is an embarrassingly poor attempt to give the illusion of action without helping anybody," said John McFerrin of West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, called the bill a good compromise that addresses problems with mountaintop removal mining, but will allow mining to continue.

"Is it a perfect environmental bill? Probably not," Kessler said. "You may hear folks say this bill doesn't do anything. I say to the naysayers, this bill does a lot."

He cited the creation of an office of blasting within the Division of Environmental Protection that establishes a claims process for damage caused by mountaintop removal blasting.

Said McFerrin of the provision, "This gives the citizens the right to be ignored by a different office."

Rick Eades, a hydrogeologist with the West Virginia Environmental Council said the bill is so flawed technically that it provides few protections against blasting damage.

"It gives its blessing not only to blasting mountains away, but to damaging people's houses and wells," he said.

Likewise, McFerrin said a provision rolling back the amount that can be destroyed by valley fills before companies must mitigate damage from 480 acres in the 1998 law to 250 acres hardly counts as an accomplishment.

"It's not any better than it was last year," he said. "Filling streams always has been, and always will be, bad public policy."

The Senate, meanwhile, passed a resolution recognizing the importance of coal mining in the state.

"The Legislature supports the continued mining of coal in West Virginia, including surface mining by all methods recognized by state and federal law, and is prepared to cooperate with all federal agencies in an effort to resolve quickly any outstanding issues which are preventing the mining of coal and which are contributing to the loss of jobs in West Virginia," the resolution states.

It was sponsored by 31 of the 34 senators.

"It's no secret ... we are at a critical stage with the coal industry in West Virginia," said Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln.

Referring to the announcement this week that Arch Coal Co. will close its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal mining complex because of a federal court injunction that has halted new permits, Jackson noted that the 300 lost jobs equal the number created at the Toyota engine plant in Putnam County.

"You just erased a whole Toyota facility from the economic landscape," he said.

The resolution, Jackson said, "recognizes the fact that, if we don't deal with the issue and deal with it quickly, hundreds and hundreds of jobs, and hundreds of millions in revenue are going to be lost.

Later Wednesday, Norm Steenstra of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said raising issues about the jobs and layoffs is a strategy by out-of-state coal companies "pitting West Virginians against each other."

He noted that while the Dal-Tex layoffs made headlines, the industry barely mentioned the layoffs of 500 underground miners in Monongalia County because of a glut of western coal on the market.

"What this industry has done is framed this as an attack on coal," said Steenstra, adding, "There's a movement across the state, not to put coal out of business, but to make coal responsible for what they take."

To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, call 348-5193.


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