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Editorial: Mountaintops

HE HAS GOT to be kidding. Gov. Cecil Underwood apparently wants yet another group to waste time talking about mountaintop removal mining.

"The governor and the speaker and the Senate president have decided to try to put together a group of stakeholders," Jim Teets, Underwood's chief of staff, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Wasn't that already done by Underwood's much-vaunted task force on mountaintop removal? Maybe the task force failed to come up with satisfactory answers, despite the governor's loading it with coal sympathizers.

In fact, the task force did a better job laying out the issues than environmentalists expected or Underwood hoped. The governor has done little with the task force report except to hand it to the Legislature.

When one legislator, Delegate Arley Johnson, D-Cabell, asked for legislative guidance from the governor during the Judiciary Committee meeting, Teets brought up Underwood's decision to put together yet another group to examine the issue.

Johnson is miffed. He thinks this may be just another delaying tactic to avoid dealing with the issues.

"Something's going to happen this session. This cannot be stalled," Johnson said. "The people of Southern West Virginia have suffered hard and long - long enough." (After voicing his complaints, Johnson was appointed to the committee.)

Public opinion polls show that two-thirds of West Virginians want mountaintop removal limited. They believe it is too destructive as currently practiced.

As the task force report said: "Public opinion clearly demonstrates that the natural landscape has compelling esthetic, natural heritage and even cultural values to our state."

Reporter Ken Ward Jr. aptly demonstrated in his ongoing "Mining the Mountains" series that current mountaintop removal practices violate the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Coal companies are supposed to have post-mining development plans in hand when they seek permits to flatten crests. They do not.

And there is no good definition of "approximate original contour" to determine when a mountaintop removal mine is failing to restore the land to something approaching nature's creation.

And regulators haven't figured out, as they are supposed to, the cumulative impact of burying hundreds of miles of West Virginia streams under mine "spoil."

A settlement reached in a lawsuit requires a two-year study that may answer that question, but coal companies are fighting it.

Legislative proposals are nibbling around the edges. Some good bills have been introduced that would limit blasting and help citizens receive compensation from coal companies for damage to their homes.

But the proposals' focus on compensation, as noted by Cindy Rank, mining chairman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, is disappointing.

"It's more important to figure out how not to do that damage in the first place," Rank said.

Rather than help the Legislature figure that out, Underwood apparently wants to appoint another group to talk, talk, talk.

Perhaps the idea is to delay until the current attention on mountaintop removal mining dies down.

If so, Underwood and his mining allies may be in for a long wait. Mountaineers aren't about to forget the mountains.


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