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Column: J. Wade Gilley

THE Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal and Related Mining Practices had its first public hearing on Aug. 3. Predictably, some individuals from both sides of this controversial and complicated issue complained because they could not turn it into a rally for their respective points of view.

Writing in the Gazette on Aug. 12, Jim Sconyers of Terra Alta complained about security being too tight and about both sides being given equal opportunity to speak. A surface mining supporter who had brought a number of like-minded individuals to the meeting had the same complaint.

Despite any shortcomings of the structure, this public hearing did achieve its primary purpose - to gather information, access public sentiment and organize the task force to conduct a thorough review of the issue and prepare a report for Gov. Underwood and the Legislature.

But first, let's examine the Aug. 3 meeting at Marshall's South Charleston campus. Attention to security was recommended by law enforcement officials after the bomb threat to the state Capitol just two weeks earlier by an anonymous individual identifying himself or herself as an opponent of mountaintop removal. One has only to remember Oklahoma City, the recent shooting at the U.S. Capitol and dozens of other events, such as regular bombing of abortion clinics around the nation, to realize that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

The university's South Charleston campus, with its central location and proximity to I-64, provided an accessible and secure opportunity for West Virginians to come and express their views to the task force. Everyone who came was provided an opportunity to be heard, if they so desired, and to hear and see the proceedings.

There were no major incidents, but security - a few State Police officers plus campus security - had to keep some individuals representing opposing views apart on more than one occasion, and some intoxicated individuals lost personal control and had to be escorted outside.

Everyone who came to speak - a total of 49 - was given the opportunity as 19 of the 21 members of the task force listened attentively and courteously and made notes for 3 hours without a break. Everyone was heard - both sides, plus a few who came to talk essentially about other things.

The alternation of speakers pro and con was recommended as an equitable and workable legislative practice. And it worked well.

At times there were close to 90 people in the hearing room itself, and it was gratifying to see the civility and actual concern in some cases that the two sides had for each other. That speaks proudly for all West Virginians.

Of the 49 speaking, they could be characterized essentially as presenting five general points of view: The coal operators and the professional environmentalists made the expected points for their organizations, including some interesting facts for the task force to consider. A third group could be classified as professional testifiers, many proudly pointing to their past appearances before various public groups on this and other topics.

The last two groups were the ones which left the most serious impression on members of the task force - residents of communities near the mining operations, and miners who feared losing their jobs. There was obvious empathy between the two groups.

Some of these two groups were, on one hand, deeply concerned about the impact of the major mining operations on their children, their homes and their communities - and, at the same time, they were concerned about having to turn to food stamps to feed their families.

I was personally impressed by how many of the miners had worked 20 and 30 years in the industry to provide for their families - and to send their children to college. It reminded me many times of the basic purpose of institutions such as Marshall University and West Virginia's other public institutions of higher education.

This meeting marked only the beginning as the task force has organized itself into three committees - on the environment, the people and the economy of West Virginia - to do its work in a systematic and professional manner by the Dec. 1 deadline. The committees will travel to the coalfields for a firsthand view of mountaintop removal mining and will have additional public hearings.

State Sen. Lloyd Jackson, attorney and environmental engineer Betsy Dulin and attorney Larry George have agreed to chair the three committees. All are well qualified for these responsibilities.

Professional organizations and individuals on both sides - and there are clearly two sides - are being solicited for written comments, including white papers and technical reports, all of which will be part of the public record.

Further, all meetings of the task force will comply with state law regarding public access.

Finally, many on both sides of this issue believe they have the answer - and many on both sides believe there is no need for any study or discussion.

However, our charge from Gov. Underwood is to make a thorough, thoughtful and fair study. That is our goal.

After our report is delivered - and we know that there will not be unanimous approval, whatever the report says - the political and legal communities will have ample opportunity to work their will.

Dr. Gilley, president of Marshall University, is chairman of the Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal and Related Mining Practices.


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