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Editorial: Mountaintop removal

FEDERAL regulators told West Virginians that just because a mountaintop is removed to get at coal, it isn't necessarily mountaintop removal mining.

Now state regulators are telling the people that it's an "improvement" to flatten a forested mountain, seed it with grass and hope that some shrubs will grow - and then allow hunters who have signed "the appropriate waivers of liability, indemnifications and assumptions of risks" to hunt whatever animals might choose to inhabit such barren fields.

As humorist Dave Barry says, we're not making this up, although we wish we were.

A.T. Massey wants to flatten 1,600 acres of crest, mine it, then turn it into "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands." To qualify for a variance relieving the company of an obligation to restore the mountain to its "approximate original contour," Massey must show that the post-mining use for the land will be an improvement.

The state Division of Environmental Protection is going along with the idea that a forested mountain will be improved by turning it into a flat, grassy "fish and wildlife habitat."

John Ailes, chief of DEP's Office of Mining and Reclamation, defended the permit, which will probably be approved this week: "The matter of fact is, it's a pretty good permit."

No, it's not. In fact, federal regulators have not approved "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" as an appropriate post-mining land use. Nor should they, as it would allow coal companies to "improve" just about any piece of land in such a fashion.

Officials of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining have said the permit may be illegal, and they will intervene if it is approved. That would be a welcome change. OSM didn't intervene in the 61 mountaintop removal permits that reporter Ken Ward Jr. found were issued illegally, without any plans for after-mining improvements.

Federal and state regulators keep defending the indefensible. We hope OSM's promise to intervene in this permit is a sign that things are finally starting to change.

Unless they do, more and more of West Virginia's "summits bathed in glory," as hailed in the state song, will vanish.

A special committee is seeking a new West Virginia slogan. If decapitation-style mining isn't curbed, the winner may be "Making Molehills Out of Mountains."


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