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Editorial: Decapitation

COAL companies and their lobbyists just keep burying their feet deeper into their mouths.

First, they said West Virginia's "mitigation" bill, making it easier for coal firms to blast the tops off mountains and dump the debris into valleys, was needed to keep the Mountain State competitive with Kentucky.

Passage of the bill opened a huge can of worms. It caused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Surface Mining to step up oversight of West Virginia strip mines. EPA delayed permits, and OSM questioned the large number of permits issued with an unapproved postmining land use of "fish and wildlife habitat."

This caused coal representatives to sputter that the scrutiny was unfair, since mines in Kentucky weren't subject to it. Fine. Now the federal agencies are taking a closer look at Kentucky. And they're finding the same abuses there.

Kentucky coal executives are the ones sputtering now, and, amazingly, they sound even more clueless than those in West Virginia.

"They talk about creating a wasteland with mountaintop removal," Bill Caylor, vice president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told Gardiner Harris of The Louisville Courier-Journal. "I argue that it was a wasteland before. All you could use it for before was forest land."

Unfortunately, as in West Virginia, few of Kentucky's mountaintop removal sites are being put to better use. In fact, 94 of 367 such mines approved since 1978 have forest land as their postmining use, even though, as with "fish and wildlife," the use is not approved by federal regulators.

Under U.S. law, firms that don't restore strip mined land to its "approximate original contour" are supposed to leave something better behind. OSM is coming to the belated realization, as the Courier Journal said, "that promising to allow fish to swim and wildlife to run over a former mine - as they generally did before mining - isn't much of an improvement and doesn't merit a mountaintop exemption."

EPA is also realizing that allowing coal companies to bury miles of streams may have unfortunate effects on water quality.

Again, Kentucky coal executives almost make West Virginia's look reasonable. The manager of an 18,000-acre mine said his company has improved the streams it has buried by forcing nearby residents to move, taking their sewage problems with them.

Coal company greed is now haunting the industry. The decision to push the mitigation bill in West Virginia, despite protests from environmentalists, federal and state regulators and even some in the industry, has bit the industry on the butt.

We're certainly not shedding any tears. The increased policing in West Virginia and Kentucky is long overdue, and points to serious weaknesses in federal regulatory oversight of state programs.

Two reporters - the Courier-Journal's Gardiner Harris and the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. - have been better watchdogs in their states than either federal agency charged with oversight.

That's sad, and it needs to change.


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