SINCE several reports have appeared in the media over the last several weeks that incompletely or inaccurately indicate the position of the United Mine Workers of America with regard to mountaintop removal mining, I believe it would be helpful for me to briefly outline our position.
The UMWA believes that strong protection for our environment is essential. As we have pointed out many times, our membership lives in the communities in which mining takes place and believes strongly that we have a duty to future generations to protect that environment.
At the same time, we make no apologies for seeking to promote the jobs available in mining and related industries. After all, these jobs average more than $50,000 per year plus benefits including retiree health care and pensions. West Virginia is already 49th in per capita income. We surely do not want to drive ourselves into an even more negative position.
Unfortunately, the debate has often been between two extreme positions - one calling for the abolition of coal mining and the other decrying any type of restrictions on mining companies as they damage peoples' houses and degrade local streams. We do not agree with either of these extreme views.
Some critics have suggested that the UMWA is only interested in the protection of our members' jobs when they work on mountaintop removal sites. Make no mistake, that is important to us.
As this statement of policy makes clear, however, we believe that this criticism is unfounded since we also believe in strong environmental and community protections. We do believe that jobs provided in coal mining are worth fighting for and preserving. This is particularly true in our economy, in which service sector jobs are often very low paying and without benefits. We are proud of our support for such jobs.
At the same time, we support strong regulatory efforts to protect the water resources of our communities, and we also believe that families living in these communities should be protected against blasting debris and the degradation of their communities.
We believe that coal companies should be held to a high standard of environmental protection and that the state and federal officials entrusted with that enforcement have on many occasions not sufficiently protected our communities.
In this regard, we support the comprehensive study of the long-term effects of mountaintop removal mining recently suggested by EPA officials, with West Virginia taking the lead in such a study and the consequent lifting of the ban on permitting.
The UMWA strongly believes that coal companies should not be permitted to destroy local communities in the process of mountaintop removal mining, including by blasting. Community residents with homes and farms should be protected from the consequences of such damage. Under current law, a homeowner can pursue a damage claim in circuit court. The practical problem is the cost of hiring attorneys and the litigation costs in hiring expert witnesses.
The UMWA believes that there should be additional legal protections to ensure that blasting damage can be easily and completely compensated by coal companies.
We suggest a statutory change so that blasting law would be made similar to a provision in state oil and gas law. Under the law, any damage to water supplies caused within 1,000 feet of a gas well is presumed to result from the drilling and operation of the gas well.