Winding up a four-month review of the drawbacks and advantages of mountaintop removal strip mining, a task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood came to a brutal conclusion:
"This area must prepare for a future without coal."
The high-extraction method, which recovers between 90 and 100 percent of available coal, is the way of the future if Appalachian producers are to compete with cheaper coal from the West and overseas, industry officials say.
But the technique, which often leaves a very changed landscape at the end, has generated more controversy than at any time since the federal strip mine reclamation law was passed in 1977. In response, Underwood, himself a former coal company executive, appointed a task force to review the practice and to make recommendations to next year's Legislature.
"The legitimate interests of the state, and especially the interests of the people most negatively affected have not adequately and fairly been addressed," said the task force's committee reviewing the effects of mining on the state's people.
The clamor has attracted the attention of federal regulators, and lawsuits are pending in state and federal courts over various aspects of the controversy.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act, has objected to at least three proposed mountaintop removal permits.
At the heart of the dispute is the technique known as valley fill, a method operators use to dispose of excess rock and dirt that is removed from above and between the coal seams.