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Byrd, Rahall urge quick action on mining permits

Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall on Wednesday urged regulators to work faster to fix problems with the mountaintop removal mining permit process.

The West Virginia Democrats said agencies have not moved quickly enough to implement the terms of a federal court settlement that allowed some permits to be issued.

"Clearly, there is a need to shore up what has been a lax oversight environment," Byrd said.

"I would not presume to suggest whether all or any of the outstanding permits should be granted, but surely decisions can be reached in a more timely fashion," that state's senior senator said.

"We simply wanted to impress upon these agencies," Rahall said, "that while our environment must be protected, the men and women working in the coal mining industries whose jobs are on the line deserve answers, and rightly so expect their government to efficiently process these permits."

In a federal court settlement with environmentalists, the U.S. Justice Department agreed that most large mountaintop removal permit applications would receive additional scrutiny. The Army Corps of Engineers would process those applications as individual permits, rather than under a nationwide general permit as had been done in the past.

Smaller mining proposals, including smaller mountaintop removal operations, could be permitted as before.

But since the settlement was reached in December, no new permits had been issued by the state DEP until Tuesday, a day before the agencies met with Byrd and Rahall.

Also on Tuesday, just before the meeting, the agencies signed an agreement on how they will process the smaller permits before a two-year environmental impact study of mountaintop removal is completed.

Rahall met Wednesday with about 50 citizens and elected officials who are upset with a federal court ruling that halted new permits for Arch Coal Inc. to expand its Dal-Tex mine in Logan County.

Byrd and Rahall met with officials from the state Division of Environmental Protection, the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and the Fish and Wildlife Service about the statewide permitting issues.

Rahall said that 15 or 16 pending mining permits fall under the threshold and do not need additional scrutiny.

The DEP is primarily responsible for issuing those permits, he said.

"They have experienced delays," the congressman said. "But [they] intend to move forward with them."

There are another 16 permits above the threshold, Rahall said. Regulators said it will take an additional six months, at a minimum, to review those permits and give them the additional scrutiny.

At least nine other permits have not been reviewed to see whether they fall under the threshold or need additional scrutiny.

Rahall added that the discussion with regulators did not involve Arch Coal's Dal-Tex operation.

"That operation is under an injunction issued by the U.S. federal judge," Rahall said. "Only that operation is under such an injunction.

"While I share the concern of the 400 miners who face the loss of their jobs due to this injunction, neither I nor any federal agency has the power under the U.S. Constitution to intervene," he said.

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


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