Environmentalists don't think the bills go far enough to help citizens who live near mountaintop removal mines and have been bothered by blasting.
"I see a lot of fluff and not a lot of substance," said Tom Degen, lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council. "It's going to shake out to be nothing."
Rank said she is disappointed that most of the proposed legislation deals with compensating the state or citizens for damage done by mountaintop removal.
"It's more important to figure out how not to do that damage in the first place," Rank said.
A list of solutions
The West Virginia Organizing Project, a citizens group based in Logan, has prepared a list of proposed legislative solutions to blasting problems. Among them are:
Making coal companies that blast near homes responsible for any damage, not just to water supplies, whether or not residents can provide absolute proof that the blasting caused the damage. A similar bill to provide this "presumptive liability" died during last year's legislative session.
Cut in half the amount of ground vibration allowed to be created by mine blasting.
Require pre-blast surveys for everyone living within 1 mile of a mine site, with updates of those blasting surveys done every year.
Reduce from 129 decibels to 110 decibels the current limit for air blasts from mining explosives. The current standard allows blasts to be slightly louder than a thunderclap. The proposal would allow blasts to be as loud as a car horn sounds from 3 feet away.
Lots of other issues surrounding mountaintop removal have not been mentioned by the governor or legislative leaders as likely to be addressed by proposed legislation this year.
They include developing a more concrete definition of the approximate original contour reclamation rule, tightening up post-mining development rules for mountaintop removal mines, and limiting the amount of waste rock and earth companies can dump into valleys and streams.
Norm Steenstra, chief lobbyist for the environmental council, said that continued citizen pressure could force lawmakers to deal with the larger issues surrounding mountaintop removal.
He cited public opinion polls that show a majority of West Virginians want to limit the scope of mountaintop removal.
"Mitigation isn't going to be the issue at the Legislature next year," Steenstra said during a task force hearing in November.
"It's going to be the 66 percent of West Virginians who want this slowed down or abandoned."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
A legislative interim committee has recommended passage of eight separate bills concerning mountaintop removal mining. Here is a summary of each:
Repeal of Senate Bill 145. This bill, passed during the 1998 Legislature, increased from 250 acres to 480 acres the size of watersheds where coal companies could bury streams with valley fills without compensating the state for the water loss.
Increase from 300 feet to 1,000 feet the buffer zone between active mining operations and occupied dwellings. Under the bill, owners and/or residents could waive the restriction if the distance is between 500 feet and 1,000 feet.
Require coal companies to preform pre-blast surveys for residents who live within 0.7 miles of active mining operations. Currently, companies are required to do surveys only if they are requested by residents. Under the new proposal, residents could refuse the surveys.
Describe the requirements for a proper pre-blast survey, including notification by mining companies to residents, approval of surveys prior to the start of mining, and the actual contents of a pre-blast survey.
Create the Office of Explosives and Blasting within the state Division of Environmental Protection. The office will review and approve blasting plans prior to the issuance of any surface mining permits. In 2001, all blasting in the state - not just at surface mining - would fall under the office's jurisdiction.
Instruct the DEP Office of Environmental Advocate to educate the public about blasting complaints and pre-blasting surveys.
Give the DEP authority to take enforcement action, including fines, against surface mining operations that violate blasting rules. The first offense would require a fine of at least $5,000.
Require coal companies to replace damaged water supplies within 30 days, if the property owner had a pre-blast survey and lives within 0.7 miles of the mining operation. Unlike current law, the property owner would not have to prove that the mining operation specifically caused the damage. If water supplies are damaged, and surface mining was being conducted, it would be assumed that the mining caused the damage.