"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."