In December, a task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood urged the governor and Legislature to debate whether mountaintop removal mining is good or bad for West Virginia.
But if the governor's State of the State address and bills being promoted by legislative leaders are any indication, neither Underwood nor the Legislature plan any such debate.
In his speech last week, Underwood criticized federal air pollution regulations and an international climate change treaty the governor says will cripple the state's coal industry. He didn't mention mountaintop removal.
Legislative leaders have said they will probably repeal a bill passed last year to allow coal companies to fill in bigger streams with mine waste without compensating the state for the loss.
Last week, a legislative interim committee also recommended to the full Legislature a series of bills being promoted as an effort to reduce mine blasting damage to coalfield residents.
"The only problem is that it will sound like they did something," said Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
The fundamental question
"The legislators are not willing to deal with that more fundamental question: whether or not mountaintop removal mining is beneficial to the state of West Virginia in the long run."
Mountaintop removal mining blasts off hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal seams. Leftover rock and earth are dumped into valleys, burying streams.
No one knows exactly how much acreage has been affected. But most of the state's major surface mining complexes are mountaintop removal operations, some covering 10,000 acres or more.
Last year, coalfield residents and environmental groups joined together to raise the profile of complaints about mountaintop removal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency temporarily stopped the state from issuing new mountaintop removal permits. A partial settlement of a federal court lawsuit promises to make it harder for coal companies to get new permits.
In response to criticism that he wasn't addressing the issue, Underwood appointed a task force to investigate mountaintop removal and recommend regulatory reforms if they were needed.
Reporting to the governor
Task force members concluded, "The law provides no guidance on the greatest source of the public's angst: How much modification of the natural landscape will West Virginia sustain for the very substantial economic benefits of MTR mining?
"Public opinion clearly demonstrates that the natural landscape has compelling aesthetic, natural heritage and even cultural values to our state," the task force said in a report to the governor. "These questions engage fundamental political, social and economic values which are properly and exclusively the province of the Legislative Branch."
Last week, a joint House-Senate interim committee proposed eight bills that deal mostly with citizen complaints that mountaintop removal blasting damages their homes and water supplies.
During a speech on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooten, D-Raleigh, predicted the proposals will pass.
"The recommendations are a good starting point for where I think we'll end up," Wooten said.
John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, said he hasn't completely reviewed the legislation yet, but thinks the bills may be a good start.
"The devil is in the details," Ailes said. "But there is some good stuff in here. These are some steps in the direction of dealing with things people are concerned about."
Moving the buffer zone
Another bill would move back from 300 feet to 1,000 feet the buffer zone between active mining sites and occupied dwellings.
"That's a biggie," said Ed Griffith, an assistant DEP mining chief. "It's going to have a big impact."
In at least two instances, the DEP has included a 1,000-foot limit in permits or through enforcement actions. Citizens who live near active mines support this change, which is more stringent than the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry will oppose the measure.
"That's just going to sterilize a lot of coal in Southern West Virginia," Hamilton said. "If you apply those numbers to mine sites active in the Southern coalfields, a lot of those are going to be off limits."