LOGAN - Hundreds of Logan County residents and other coal industry supports told federal regulators on Saturday to lay off mountaintop removal strip mining.
Local elected officials, strip mine supply company representatives and coal lobbyists urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop what has effectively become a mountaintop removal permit moratorium.
"Today's hearing isn't about streams, it's about jobs, and families and kids, and a way of life," said Bill Raney, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association.
Paul Hardesty, administrator for the Logan County Commission, said the area doesn't have any other way to support itself except for coal.
"If the mining process is stopped or impeded, Logan County would suffer devastating consequences," Hardesty said. "The county commission is not saying coal mining is perfect. But we cannot lessen the degree of dependence on coal that currently exists."
Stephen Walker, president of Walker Machinery, said his 600-employee company relies on coal companies for 70 percent of its heavy-equipment sales business. Walker said he doesn't believe coal causes environmental problems.
"Do not blame the modern coal industry for water-quality problems in Southern West Virginia today," Walker said. "Modern coal mining does not pollute."
Raney, Hardesty and Walker were among more than 130 people who spoke at a seven-hour public hearing the EPA sponsored Saturday afternoon at Southern West Virginia Community College.
EPA officials called the hearing, at the request of environmentalists, to accept public comments on two mountaintop removal permits the EPA has refused to allow the state to issue.
An overflow crowd packed a 500-seat auditorium at the college. Hundreds more milled about the parking lot, many watching the West Virginia-Miami football game on large-screen televisions supplied by a coal affiliate.
On a warm, sunny October afternoon, EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe and three top aides, along with state Division of Environmental Protection Director Michael Miano, sat on a stage in a chilly theater and listened to hours of testimony about valley fills, economic development and water quality.
Mountaintop removal supporters far outnumbered critics among both the speakers and audience. Everyone who spoke in defense of the industry was greeted by wild applause.
But the much-anticipated event was far from the United Mine Workers rally that many environmentalists feared. Top area UMW officials did not attend, and union President Cecil Roberts has urged his members to take a middle-of-the road approach on the issue.
Still, some of the most caustic comments of the day came from a few working coal miners and from management at Arch Coal Inc., the state's largest coal company.
"Most of the people who are doing all the talking couldn't tell a dozer from a loader," said Pearl Hudson, a UMW member who works for Arch Coal. "Most of them are on a check or too old to have a family to raise."
Mark White, general manager at Arch Coal's Dal-Tex operation near Blair, agreed that mountaintop removal critics don't know what they are talking about.
"All we have are Chicken Little environmentalists claiming the sky is falling, and they have a sympathetic press to help their cause," White said.
Environmentalists at the hearing urged EPA officials to ignore the rhetoric about jobs and focus on the agency's legal responsibility to enforce the law.
"This isn't about jobs; it's about enforcing the Clean Water Act of the United States of America," said Norm Steenstra, director of the West Virginia-Citizen Action Group.
Steenstra said coal interests control Gov. Cecil Underwood and the Legislature, and that West Virginia needs EPA and other federal agencies to step in. Top gubernatorial aide Corky DeMarco attended Saturday's hearing and wore a pro-coal sticker on his lapel.