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Editorial: Mitigation

GOV. Underwood has finally figured out that mountaintop removal mining is a serious issue, and that he probably made a mistake in signing a controversial "mitigation" bill making it easier and cheaper for coal companies to decapitate the skyline.

Unfortunately, the governor's understanding comes too late, and his order to his illegally appointed director of the Division of Environmental Protection to ignore the new law "whenever possible" is next to meaningless.

While the law gives the director some discretion in a few areas, the major change - doubling the size of valleys that can be filled without mitigation payments - is nondiscretionary.

This is the most damaging change in the new law, and the one that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds most objectionable. Underwood cannot undo it simply by issuing a two-paragraph order.

He could have undone it if he had vetoed the bill, as recommended by then-DEP Director Jack Caffrey, the EPA and even some coal companies.

But he didn't do that, despite warnings that the bill might backfire on his friends in the coal industry, causing increased scrutiny and permit delays by the EPA.

Underwood is beginning to see that mountaintop removal mining is a potent political issue - and he's on the wrong side.

West Virginians don't want to make it easier for coal companies to rape the mountains. They don't want the state to let coal companies dump hundreds of tons of dirt and rock into valleys, destroying miles of streams, without even compensating the state for the loss.

It's too late for Underwood to undo the damage he caused by signing the mitigation bill. The issue has moved beyond the appropriate way for coal companies to pay for the damage caused by valley fills. The issue now is whether the valley fills themselves violate federal laws. A lawsuit has been filed on that very question.

Underwood had his chance to stand for the people and against the greediest elements of the coal industry. He blew it. His letter saying to shelve the law does little to mitigate that failure.


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