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EPA gets earful on mountaintop mining

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.

"The federal government is supposed to protect us from ourselves," Steenstra said. "We needed a civil rights law because certain states didn't like civil rights."

The hearing focused on water pollution permits for two mountaintop removal mining proposals.

McCabe said his agency halted the permits because the state DEP didn't do enough study to conclude that the mines will abide by federal and state water-quality rules.

Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to uncover valuable low-sulfur coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into nearby hollows and streams in waste piles called valley fills.

"The EPA is not out to stop surface mining in West Virginia," McCabe said. "If that's what you're hoping for, you will be disappointed. We are determined, however, to make sure it is done in the most environmentally responsible way as possible."

Cindy Rank, leader of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, reminded McCabe that whatever decisions he makes about the two permits at issue will affect dozens of permits already in the pipeline, as well as those applied for later.

Rank also disputed coal company arguments that most of the streams buried by valley fills are tiny creeks that only run wet when it rains, and therefore don't matter.

"If you cut off the tips of our fingers, your hands aren't very useful," Rank said. "That's what we're doing with these streams."

Other coalfield residents said they worry mountaintop removal is destroying the state's hilltop heritage and mountain culture.

"We used to sing the song 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia.' Now we have to sing "Almost Level, West Virginia,'" said Sibby Weekley, who lives in Pigeonroost Hollow in Logan County, where Arch Coal wants a permit to expand its Dal-Tex mine.

Ken Woodring, a vice president at Arch Coal, said EPA is costing his company $1 million for every month that the Pigeonroost permit is not issued. Arch Coal has told Dal-Tex workers they could be laid off any day if the permit isn't issued soon.

"We do know that this permit delay will harm one environment - that's the environment that depends on the Dal-Tex mine," Woodring said.

Carlos Gore of Blair, Logan County, said he understands coal miners speaking out to try to keep their jobs. By the same token, he said he will fight to protect his family's way of life.

"You put a pond and a valley fill in my hollow," Gore said. "I had two streams running and I had well water. Now I don't have anything.

"I've got a right to live there," Gore said. "I lived there before the mountaintop removal mine came in, and I'll be there long after it's gone. I'm going to outlaw this strip mining until you learn how to do it right."

Patricia Bragg of Mingo County broke into tears when she talked about how mountaintop removal had turned miners and coalfield residents against each other.

"This isn't about whether the citizens are right or the miners are right," Bragg said. "It's about how there is no regulatory agency in the state of West Virginia doing its job to protect the people."

 

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

 


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