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Byrd, Rahall criticize OSM

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, both D-W.Va., on Tuesday blasted the federal Office of Surface Mining's new report on mountaintop-removal coal mining.

Byrd said the report "is disappointing in that it does little to address the core issues of concern, instead putting off a resolution of the central questions to a later date."

Rahall said that with the report, released Tuesday, the OSM "abrogated its responsibility."

"It pains me to say this, but once again, OSM has shown that it has no backbone to aggressively fulfill its statutory mandate to coalfield citizens," said Rahall, who served on the House-Senate conference committee that created the OSM in the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The OSM on Tuesday morning formally released the results of a nine-month examination of the state's regulation of mountaintop-removal surface mines.

The report, with full-color photos and charts, outlined a long list of problems with the way these huge mines are permitted by the state Division of Environmental Protection.

The report, however, suggested no concrete ways to fix the problems.

Instead, the OSM started a monthlong public-comment period to hear suggestions on how to correct regulatory oversights outlined in the report.

"The actual resolution of some of the issues the report raises may have implications beyond the boundaries of West Virginia," said OSM Director Kathy Karpan. "That's why I have decided to circulate the draft report for review and comment to interested parties both within West Virginia and beyond."

OSM officials had little reaction to the criticism from Byrd and Rahall.

"I haven't seen their statements," said OSM regional director Al Klein. "But we respect the congressman's and the senator's opinions.

"We have long-standing relationships with them and look forward to working with them on any issues they have with the report."

DEP Director Michael Miano praised the OSM report.

In a prepared statement, Miano said the report vindicated his agency, which has been widely criticized - and sued in federal court - for allegedly authorizing illegal mountaintop-removal mines.

"The report said OSM has found West Virginia's permits have been legally issued," Miano said. "The report did not find any environmental problem associated with West Virginia permits. These are findings we welcome and find heartening.

"Our primary aim remains the protection of the state's environment," Miano added. "This report will assist the DEP in providing a stable regulatory climate."

The OSM report found that the DEP has inconsistently applied the federal law's "approximate original contour" reclamation variance and granted mountaintop-removal permits that don't contain required postmining land-development plans.

Asked about Miano's press release, Klein said, "Our report does not match up with that statement. If they have some disagreements with our report, I'm not aware they have expressed that to us."

Miano conceded that the report "finds in part that some of our approved program differs from" federal law. But, he said, "these differences themselves were approved by OSM in the past."

Byrd recently joined with other members of West Virginia's congressional delegation to resolve permit problems with mountaintop removal so Arch Coal Inc. can avoid laying off 400 workers at its Dal-Tex mine later this month.

"I would not attempt to suggest any course of action that OSM should prescribe with regard to mountaintop removal," Byrd said Tuesday.

"But this report moves us no closer to addressing the environmental concerns associated with the practice," Byrd said. "It also does nothing to end the uncertainty with which mining families who face layoffs are having to live."

Rahall took specific issue with OSM's refusal to come to grips with clarifying how the approximate original contour requirement applies to mountaintop-removal mines.

"Today, the southern coalfields are being held hostage to nameless, faceless bureaucrats who so far have been unable to resolve even the most rudimentary issues in the dispute involving mountaintop-removal mining," Rahall said.

Rahall also took aim at the Interior Department, of which OSM is a part. Interior Solicitor John Leshy had been asked by Rahall to make sure the report was handled properly. Leshy's staff rewrote most of the report, which was toned down from an internal draft completed in August.

The OSM report can be obtained on the agency's Internet site at http://www.osmre.gov/mountaintop.htm, or through the OSM Charleston field office at (304) 347-7158.

 

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


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