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Column: John McFerrin

FINALLY, we have someone in public life with the courage to question mountaintop-removal mining and the wisdom of our current approach to the problem. Rep. Bob Wise has called for a moratorium of new permits until we figure out our policy.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, on the other hand, has formed a task force. He wants it to advise him on what we should do about mountaintop removal. Now he is sitting still, waiting for the task force to do its work. While it is doing its work, he is doing nothing.

Were mountaintop-removal mining something we were considering doing in the future, sitting still and doing nothing until we figure out the effects would be a sensible approach. But it isn't something in the future - it is here now. Right now, giant machines are ripping off the tops of mountains. Right now, they are filling miles of streams with tons of dirt. Right now, the mines are blasting people from their homes and destroying communities. Is this really something we should allow to go on while we sit and think about it?

Consider what we know and what we don't know:

We have no idea what the long-term environmental effects of the practice will be. At the first meeting of the Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal Mining, a representative of the Division of Environmental Protection gave what the agenda described as an "Overview of the Issue." Right off the bat, the DEP listed questions it would like to have answered. This was first on the list:

"What are the long-term environmental impacts of valley fills?"

Although we don't know the answer, is there any reason to believe that mountaintop-removal mining is good for the environment? With the exception of those in the industry who are paid to think that way, is there anyone who thinks that valley fills are good for the environment? We might not know whether the long-term effects will be bad, terrible or devastating. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that a mining technique which results in the filling of hundreds of miles of streams with millions of tons of dirt would be anything other than environmentally destructive. The part we don't know is just how destructive it is.

We do know that it is not delivering the economic benefits it was supposed to. Mountaintop removal was sold as a tool to create flat land for homes, industries, farms and public purposes. It has created grasslands that are not used for anything. Before they ever started to mine, companies were supposed to have in hand plans for how they were going to turn the mined land into industrial sites, housing developments or parks. In practice, it is not creating any of these things. It is creating unused grasslands.

It's not delivering the economic benefits it promised. The big machines are ripping the tops off our mountains. Underwood is waiting for the task force to work.

We do know that the practice is a violation of the federal and state Clean Water Acts. Those laws prohibit degrading our streams; they require that existing uses of the streams be maintained. Mountaintop-removal mining dumps millions of tons of rocks and dirt into our streams. They can't do that and maintain existing uses of the streams.

As currently done, the practice is almost certainly illegal. Underwood is waiting for the task force to work.

We do know that the agency that is supposed to regulate mountaintop-removal mining is clueless. The DEP doesn't know how many mountaintop-removal mines there are. It doesn't know how many acres have been mined by this method. It isn't taking any steps to assure that the companies which promised a specific post-mining land use are actually achieving it.

Underwood is waiting for the task force to work.

Until now, Underwood had near universal support among the politicians in his do-nothing stance. In spite of his policy of sitting still while the tops of our mountains are blown off, none of the other politicians said anything. With the striking exception of Ken Hechler, everyone else sat on his hands while the destruction continued.

Finally we have a politician with the courage and the vision to say something. Wise has called for a moratorium on new permits for mountaintop-removal mining until the task force has finished its work and we have resolved the legal issues.

A moratorium might not be the dramatic step that some would favor. People frequently stop me on the street to say that the practice should end altogether. Compared to our do-nothing governor, however, Wise is a breath of fresh air.

 

McFerrin, a Beckley lawyer, is one of the Gazette's contributing columnists.

 


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