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Mining critics perceive settlement as victory

Leaders of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy declared victory Tuesday with the partial settlement of a landmark lawsuit over mountaintop removal mining.

"We have won major concessions on all points in this settlement," said Frank Young, the conservancy president.

"This agreement will help rein in mountaintop removal, bringing the practice to the standards of the law," Young said. "This was the premise of our lawsuit."

On Monday, lawyers for the conservancy, other coalfield citizens, the state Division of Environmental Protection and the coal industry filed a proposed consent decree with Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II.

Mountaintop removal blasts off hilltops to uncover valuable, low-sulfur coal reserves. Leftover rock and earth is put into nearby valleys, burying streams.

"DEP Director Michael Miano and Governor [Cecil] Underwood have issued statement after statement saying that DEP was following the law and legally issuing mountaintop removal permits," Young said. "Actions in the lawsuit, including this settlement, show that the law has not been followed."

Miano did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Rod Blackstone, the governor's press secretary, said Tuesday afternoon, "The regulation of mountaintop mining has not been as consistent as it could have been.

"I think there is some recognition within a lot of circles that have been following this debate that what had become accepted practice had deviated from the strict letter of the law," Blackstone said. "What can come out of ... this negotiated settlement can be a clearer picture of what needs to be done to regulate mountaintop mining."

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, downplayed the significance of the settlement.

"I do think it will bring changes, but I don't think it's going to revolutionize the practice," Raney said.

Raney said most of the settlement items dealt with permit paperwork, and not with on-the-ground environmental impacts. Raney said he still doesn't think mountaintop removal causes the permanent "environmental degradation" that Haden cited in a March 3 court opinion.

"I don't think there is degradation as a result of [mining]," Raney said.

Cindy Rank, the conservancy's mining chairwoman, said that the settlement is not "the final solution" to problems caused by mountaintop removal.

Rank said that the conservancy will continue its court battle to show that valley fills violate the 100-foot stream buffer zone rule. She also noted that other new regulatory efforts, including a two-year environmental study, could point out the need for more new mining rules.

"This settlement is but one more step in the overall effort to limit the negative impacts of current excessive mining practices," Rank said.

"Our agreement last December with federal regulatory agencies about the Clean Water Act claims in this suit, the court's decision on the buffer zone provisions expected in early August, and the provisions of this settlement, if it is accepted by the court - are all essential pieces of this effort.

"For the conservancy and everyone else involved - federal, state and local agencies, as well as concerned citizens - each of these steps requires constant scrutiny and vigilance," she said.

"The two-year Environmental Impact Study, the Army Corps of Engineers' review of pending mine permits and the implementation of this recent settlement all demand that we continue to educate ourselves and the public about the extent and impact of these mining practices."

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


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