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Legislature may revisit mountaintop removal, Jackson says

If a new law on mountaintop removal doesn't solve problems caused by the mining, the Legislature will revisit the issue next year, a lead sponsor of the bill said Thursday.

"I think it was a good start," said Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln. "This is complex legislation and a difficult, complex issue.

"If we don't have it right, so that the economics and the people are protected, we'll go back and take another look at it next year."

Jackson was the lead author of a bill, passed by the Legislature Saturday, which supporters say will:

Require more pre-blast surveys of homes near mine sites, and force companies to submit site-specific blasting plans, with more detailed information the closer mines move to homes and other buildings.

Create an Office of Blasting within the state Division of Environmental Protection to write and enforce the new blasting rules and regulations.

Make coal companies more responsible for damage to water supplies from blasting, and make it easier for citizens to seek compensation for property damage caused by mining.

Create an Office of Coalfield Development within the state Development Office. The office will work to promote development of mountaintop mining sites.

Repeal parts of the mining mitigation bill that allowed larger streams to be buried by valley fills without compensation to the state.

The bill approved by the Legislature was modeled after some of the recommendations of a mountaintop removal task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood.

The task force and Jackson, however, originally suggested creating an Office of Community Impact within the state Division of Environmental Protection, rather than the coalfield development office within the Development Office.

As originally proposed, the new agency would assess what the impact of specific mining proposals might be on communities, work to lessen those, and try to figure out how to use old mining sites for community development when coal is gone. Under the Development Office, the agency will work more on developing mine sites.

"It made a lot of sense for the Development Office to be looking at those things rather than DEP," Jackson said.

Some of the community impact assessment duties will be handled by the new blasting office, Jackson said.

The mountaintop removal bill has not yet gone to the governor, but it appears likely that Underwood will sign it. In a news release Sunday, the governor praised the Legislature for passing the bill.

Environmentalists are not happy with the bill. John McFerrin, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said the legislation will give "the illusion of corrective action while, in reality, maintaining the status quo."

Privately, some regulators have said the bill does not make major changes from what is already required under state and federal mining laws.

Jackson said that the Legislature decided not to try to tackle the mountaintop removal issues raised in a federal court lawsuit that charges the state has permitted dozens of mountaintop mines illegally. For example, the bill does not try to fix loopholes in state law that allow mountaintop removal mines without federally required post-mining development plans.

"Most people didn't want the Legislature to try to settle this lawsuit," Jackson said.

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


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