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Underwood balks at following mountaintop mining task force

Gov. Cecil Underwood said Tuesday he does not want to follow his own task force's recommendation to rescind a law passed this year permitting coal companies to fill larger areas with rubble blasted from mountaintops.

After federal regulators, environmentalists and neighbors of strip mining sites in counties in Southern West Virginia complained, Underwood halted enforcement of the law by executive order.

He then established the task force to study mountaintop removal mining. The task force issued its report early this month.

The most controversial aspect of the law allows coal companies to cover 480 acres of stream bed instead of 250 before being required to mitigate their work.

The state Division of Environmental Protection previously required companies to pay $200,000 for every acre of stream they covered or replace it with two acres of new waterway. The law increased the payment to $225,000.

Underwood did not comment on that portion of the law but said other provisions in it are worth keeping, especially sections that codify regulations which previously were simply agreements between the DEP and companies.

"I think something should be in the statute," Underwood said.

"I think rather than starting all over again, if we can find the right approach to correct the problem, then everybody ought to be happy," the governor said.

"We certainly will work with legislative leadership to develop whatever legislation is needed," he said.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and House Speaker Bob Kiss said Tuesday that the portion of the law increasing the size of unmitigated valley fills probably will be rescinded.

But they agreed with Underwood that other portions of the law should be retained.

Kiss said the House of Delegates passed the bill because it allowed the Legislature, instead of a state agency, to spend the money that coal companies pay in mitigation fees like it spends other state money.

The bill also required a study of the effects of valley fills on streams.

"Why would you want to stop studying the effects on streams? It's ridiculous," Kiss said.

Tomblin agreed both those sections should be kept.

Underwood said, "We'll follow generally the recommendations of the commission."


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