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Review of mining permits proposed

A special committee will be appointed to periodically review mining permits under the proposed settlement of a federal court lawsuit over mountaintop removal.

The committee will include engineers picked by the coal industry, environmental groups and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, The Charleston Gazette learned Monday.

If approved, the settlement would also set up a homesteading program through which large coal and land companies would give property to low-income coalfield residents.

Lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the state Division of Environmental Protection and the coal industry worked out the proposal. The deal was negotiated primarily by Joe Lovett, a lawyer for citizens, DEP lawyer Brian Glasser, and coal industry lawyer Terry Sammons.

The conservancy board approved the proposal Saturday, and the West Virginia Coal Association backed it Monday afternoon.

Both groups wanted small changes in the agreement. Lawyers hoped to work those out in time for a draft consent decree to be filed with Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II later this week.

Details of the agreement are also under consideration by federal regulators. Lawyers hoped to get approval from government agencies before filing the settlement with Haden.

According to sources and documents reviewed by the Gazette, the proposal would also:

Improve upon a new "approximate original contour," or AOC, definition issued in March by OSM and DEP. Under the definition, coal operators must put more of the rock and earth they remove back on hilltops, and less into stream bed valley fills.

Limit post-mining land uses for permits that allow land to be flattened through AOC variances to those allowed under federal law. Uses such as fish and wildlife habitat would be discontinued. The definition of the "woodlands" post-mining land use would be tightened.

Require companies that propose economic development for AOC variance permits to submit plans that demonstrate the viability and need for the planned project.

Haden would have to approve the settlement. Either side would be able to go back to the judge if they thought provisions of the deal were being violated.

Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth are dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

In July 1998, the conservancy and a group of coalfield citizens filed a federal court lawsuit to try to curb the practice.

In December, the parties settled a part of the lawsuit which alleged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally approved valley fills under the "dredge and fill" provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Under that settlement, federal regulators are conducting a two-year environmental impact statement to figure out if more regulation of mountaintop removal is needed.

On Friday, Haden postponed a trial on the other issues. The trial, originally scheduled to start today, was put off until Aug. 2.

Most of the issues are expected to be resolved by the settlement, lawyers told Haden during a hearing Friday afternoon.

The only unresolved issue is an allegation by the conservancy that valley fills violate a rule that prohibits mining within 100 feet of streams.

Lawyers said Friday they hoped Haden would decide that issue based on written court briefs, not on a trial.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702 or e-mail kw...@wvgazette.com.


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