CHARLESTON, W.vA. -- Franz Kafka, an author known for some hopelessness, must have been the inspiration for the reorganization of the Department of Environmental Protection's public hearings. Until a couple of years ago the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held public "informal conferences" which were often confrontations between large groups of angry strip miners and a few folks concerned about the destruction of strip mining in all its gory manifestations.
The DEP has defanged the conferences. Only one person gets to hear and be inspired, angered or depressed by oral testimony. A DEP employee sits off to the side with a recording device and one at a time and with no audience, anyone can talk to the machine.
I recently attended the informal conference about an application to expand what was originally the Keystone mine. It is one of the bookend strip mines that squeeze Kanawha State Forest from both sides.
Almost 10 years ago, the Keystone mine started out as a 375-acre mountain top removal operation within sight and hearing of Charleston homes in the Rush Creek and Mount Alpha Road area. Of course the DEP approved the permit. The nearby residents appealed to the Surface Mine Board. The company settled by agreeing to a buffer zone between the mining and the homes.
Many of the neighbors of the mine showed up to question the DEP about the expansion asked for by Revelation Energy, LLC, the new owners of the former Keystone mine. The neighbors are concerned about the blasting within earshot, the dust, the noise and bright lights at night. The neighbors say the expansion request violates the intent of the buffer zone deal they made with Keystone.
At the Keystone/Revelation Energy informal conference uniformed DEP employees stood behind tables with maps laid out showing what was going to happen. Someone asked if the amended permit would be visible from Kanawha State Forest. DEP has computer software that allows them to predict visual impacts from mining, but they replied that they haven't used it to show if Revelation's amendment will make the mine even more visible from the Forest. During the leafless season I have viewed the mine from Kanawha State Forest and heard blasts one mountain over as I walked along Davis Creek.
Like almost all other strip mine/mountain top removal permit applications, DEP approved this one that is about two miles from the state Capitol. In their letter to those opposing the expansion, the company advised that the whole thing was to contribute to our nation's energy needs while supporting the miners' families and their communities. As usual there was not one word about the real reason for the mine -- corporate profit.
At a meeting a few years ago with the DEP director, organized by the Coal River Mountain Watch, someone asked the director how many permits had been rejected on her watch. She could not think of one.
In Ansted, a while back, I attended a public informal conference on a strip mine permit application. DEP employees sat at tables in the middle of a gymnasium floor. A recording device sat on one of the tables. Anyone present could go to the microphone and speak to the audience and for all it was worth to the DEP employees and with as much effect to the recording machine.
From the bleachers I called out a question to the DEP chair of the hearing. I asked how many permit applications he had evaluated. About three thousand, he answered. I then asked how many had been denied. He said two.
As a DEP director once declared, the DEP is a permitting agency. Indeed it is.
Martin is a retired teacher in Charleston.