United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Tuesday that coalfield residents need more protection from blasting at mountaintop removal strip mines.
Roberts also said coal operators must be forced to plan long-term economic development when they reclaim mountaintop removal mine sites.
In the UMW's first detailed public statements since a controversy erupted over mountaintop removal a year ago, Roberts said strip miners want to keep their jobs.
But, the Cabin Creek native emphasized, "This union has a proud history of working not only in the interests of its own members, but on behalf of all working people and the communities they live in.
"We fully intend to uphold that tradition," Roberts said.
Roberts spoke and submitted written comments Tuesday to a task force Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed to look into complaints about mountaintop removal.
The UMW leader had been mostly silent on the issue for months, but had received behind-the-scenes pressure from local union leaders - and from Arch Coal Inc. - to speak out in favor of the mining practice.
Unlike old-time strip mining, mountaintop removal blasts away entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into nearby valleys and streams.
In his statement, Roberts emphasized that the coal industry is still a vital part of the economy in many Southern West Virginia communities.
In Boone County, for example, 42 percent of the work force is directly employed by the coal industry. In coal counties of the state, more than 10 percent of all jobs are directly linked to mining, Roberts said.
"We make no apologies for seeking to promote the jobs available in the mining and related industries," Roberts said.
"We do believe that jobs provided in coal mining are worth fighting for and preserving," he said. "This is particularly true in our economy, in which service sector jobs are often very low-paying and without benefits."
But, Roberts said, "At the same time, we support strong regulatory efforts to protect the water resources of our communities, and we also believe that families living in these communities should be protected against blasting debris and degradation of the ir communities.