Coal operators must greatly reduce the damage mountaintop removal strip mining does to West Virginia's mountains, streams and coalfield communities, members of a gubernatorial task force have concluded.
The coal industry must also follow through on legal requirements to develop land flattened by mountaintop removal so nearby communities will have jobs and economic development once the coal is gone, task force members found.
Three committees of a task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood reported their preliminary findings to the entire body during a meeting Tuesday night.
Many environmentalists and industry critics discounted the task force months ago because so many members have close ties to the coal industry.
Committee reports made clear the task force members don't want to abolish mountaintop removal. All three reports noted that mining is the major economic force in some southern counties.
"West Virginia should maintain its longstanding commitment to provide energy to the nation and also protect its reputation as a reliable supplier of competitive, high-quality coals," one committee report said.
But draft reports released Tuesday painted a shockingly negative picture of what task force members found mountaintop removal is doing to the state's hills and hollows and, most importantly, its people.
"If mountaintop removal is to continue, the state owes a duty to regulate its impacts on the people of the state," said state Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, who chaired a committee on mining impacts on communities.
Larry George, a former top state environmental regulator who chaired a committee on economic matters, said the issue has been ignored for far too long.
"Everyone was looking the other way," said George, a Charleston lawyer who now represents coal companies. "Whether you are a federal agency, the state regulators or the political establishment, the issue has been neglected for over a decade."
In its written draft report, George's panel stated, "The committee has found that the need for far greater utility of surface mined lands, the applicable federal law and also public opinion, albeit divided, compels significant reforms in mountaintop removal mining.
"The footprint and environmental impacts of these mining methods should be reduced," the draft report said. "A zealous commitment must be made to post-mining land uses which provide economic and social benefits to the citizens of the coalfields."
Jackson's committee report stated, "To whom much is given, much will be required. With every level of privilege comes an equally high level of responsibility.
"If the coal industry, and those benefiting from the extraction of mineral resources, are allowed the short-term privilege of exploiting our state's wealth through mining practices which impact a large group of people - some in a very negative way - and through practices which will extract significant portions of the remaining reserves, then with that privilege must come the responsibility of helping address the long-term needs of the people impacted by the activity," it said.