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Column: Ken Hechler

In an attempt to quiet the outrage against mountaintop removal mining, on June 10 Gov. Underwood announced the creation of a 17-member Task Force on Mountaintop Mining Practices. The panel, chaired by Marshall University President J. Wade Gilley, held its first public hearing Aug. 3.

Although well over 100 people showed up for the hearing at the MU Graduate College in South Charleston, only those who professed to favor or oppose the practice and wanted to speak on the issue were allowed in the same room as the task force members. All others were shunted into another room where they watched the proceedings on a video monitor. Pro and anti speakers were limited to five minutes, with no time allowed for questions by the task force members.

Coal association lobbyists and miners working on mountaintop removal jobs dominated those speaking in support of the practice. Opponents were primarily citizens whose homes and livelihood were being threatened.

For several reasons, the general public is skeptical about this task force which is charged with studying "the effects of mountaintop removal and related mining practices on the environment, the economy and the citizens of the state." Michael Miano, director of the Division of Environmental Protection and a member of the task force, is a coal executive alumnus of the Pittston company, so his allegation that the task force is "balanced" is suspect. The task force is overloaded with apologists for the coal industry and mountaintop removal. Citizens directly affected by the practice are noticeably absent.

Although the task force at the three-hour Aug. 3 hearing certainly got an earful of angry complaints, the most dramatic testimony came from 10-year-old Kayla Bragg of Delbarton in Mingo County. Lowering the microphone so she could stretch up to be heard, Kayla began to describe the horrors of trying to live near the round-the-clock blasting above her home. In impassioned tones, she started to say: "I don't want to lose my home" - and then could not finish because she broke down with sobs.

The task force will have failed in its mission if it concentrates on cash register items without focusing on the serious human problems suffered by citizens in the coalfields. The task force will have failed in its mission if it does not internalize the total costs of mountaintop removal, including the degradation of the streams resulting from valley fills. The task force will have failed in its mission if it fails to focus on the monetary benefits flowing to West Virginia from the tourists who come here to enjoy landscapes and not moonscapes.

Most of all, the task force will have failed in its mission if it attempts to offer a few general palliatives such as urging the Legislature to revisit the infamous mitigation bill, or expressing concern for those citizens affected by the blasting.

It is perhaps too much to expect from a group dominated by cheerleaders for mountaintop removal that they could come up with a searching and objective report clearly aimed at solving the human problems accompanying this practice. Yet anything short of that will ignite a massed, angered uprising the likes of which West Virginia has never experienced.

Members of the task force should realize that this is no longer an issue which they can sweep under the rug by derisive characterizations like "environmental extremists" and "outsiders." The outrage has spread to include an overwhelming majority of West Virginians ready to do whatever is necessary to stop the rape of our mountains.

Hechler is West Virginia's secretary of state.


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