Former top West Virginia regulator David C. Callaghan said Monday that the Legislature and Gov. Cecil Underwood should reconsider a new law Callaghan said allows coal companies to fill in streams without compensating the state.
Two other former top state regulators - coal lobbyist Ben Greene and Charleston lawyer Larry George - agreed with Callaghan, who spoke during the first meeting of a gubernatorial task force on mountaintop removal mining. Callaghan, Greene and George are members of the 17-person panel.
Callaghan said that one of the task force's top priorities should be to push for a rewrite of the new mitigation law. Underwood signed the law in April, over the objections of numerous federal agencies and the state Division of Environmental Protection.
"The whole mountaintop removal concept is in jeopardy," Callaghan said. "The recent actions of the state Legislature need to be re-evaluated. Mitigation needs to be revisited."
Mountaintop removal mining shaves off entire mountaintops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal seams underneath. The leftover rock and earth, which swells when mountains are blasted apart, is dumped in streams in waste piles called valley fills.
Federal law doesn't allow waterways to be filled in unless the person doing the filling compensates for the loss. Usually, the compensation comes in the form of building new wetlands, streams or ponds. In the West Virginia coal industry, most companies choose to pay monetary compensation instead.
Previously, a state Division of Environmental Protection policy required mine operators to compensate the state for filling in streams with a drainage area of 250 acres or more.
The new law, pushed primarily by A.T. Massey Coal Co. and the West Virginia Coal Association, raises that threshold to 480 acres.
Callaghan, who served as chief state environmental regulator during the Rockefeller and Caperton administrations, started the state's valley fill mitigation program during his last stint as DEP director. Originally, Callaghan hoped to use mitigation from strip mine valley fills to clean up state streams polluted with acid mine drainage and acid rain.
During Monday's task force meeting, Callaghan said that most valley fills proposed by coal companies would not require mitigation under the 480-acre threshold in the new legislation.