HAZARD, Ky. - Coal industry supporters turned out in force Tuesday to oppose any tougher restrictions on mountaintop removal mining.Miners, industry lobbyists and coal company engineers dominated the first of two hearings on a broad study of mountaintop removal's environmental effects."The coal industry gives us jobs and lets us provide for our families," said Roger Jones, a 25-year industry engineer from Virginia.Jones and other speakers attacked what they called a "hidden agenda of environmental extremism" aimed at eliminating all coal mining.
Industry supporters said that mining provides the only good-paying jobs in a depressed region and levels out rough terrain for future development.Columbus Heath, a former miner from Corbin, Ky., said that environmental and safety laws to govern mining were needed in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, he said, "It's come to a point where the agencies need to back off."More than 200 people turned out here for the hearing, which federal regulators held to collect public input on their 4 1/2-year study.During a three-hour afternoon session, only four of about three dozen speakers were not ardent advocates of mountaintop removal.Some industry supporters criticized "endless lawsuits" by environmental groups, and singled out the local Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.Patty Wallace, a vocal KFTC member, said she and other activists planned to speak during a later session Tuesday night.As for the one-sided sound of the afternoon hearing, Wallace said, "It means that they can get off work and get paid to come down here."
The evening's four-hour session was slightly more balanced between supporters and opponents of mountaintop removal. Industry critics, though, had to speak through "boos" from miners in the audience.Environmentalists criticized the government's study for detailing the damage caused by mountaintop removal mining, but proposing no new restrictions."This is a sellout to the coal industry," said Dan Kash, a former Kentucky environmental inspector turned environmental activist.Lexington resident Dave Cooper said mountaintop removal mining is destroying Appalachia's valuable supply of timber and clean water.
"We can use it to create jobs or we can bury it beneath valley fills and destroy it forever," Cooper said.In December 1998, federal agencies promised to conduct the study as part of the settlement of a lawsuit the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed to curb mountaintop removal.
The study was meant to take only two years. It was to consider new rules to "minimize the potential for adverse individual and cumulative impacts of mining operations."Federal officials finally released the study two months ago. They said that mountaintop removal had already buried 724 miles of Appalachian streams, and that, without new restrictions, nearly 2,200 square miles of forests would eventually be eliminated.But instead of tougher regulations, the Bush administration proposed to streamline the review of permits for new mining operations. Agency officials said that, by working more closely on permit reviews, they would also improve environmental protection.Steve Gardner, a Lexington mining engineer, wasn't buying it. He said at the hearing that regulators continually shift their interpretations of mining rules, making it hard for operators to know what guidelines to follow.
Gardner blamed much of the mountaintop removal controversy on "misinformation and inaccuracies" by The Charleston Gazette, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal of Louisville."I know the press has a job to do, but let's get the facts straight, folks," Gardner said.Kentucky is the nation's third-largest coal-producing state, behind Wyoming and West Virginia. Most of Kentucky's coal output comes from seven counties in the eastern part of the state.The Kentucky Coal Association pushed for a big turnout at Tuesday's meeting, sending out daily e-mails over the last week."Coal is the workhorse in the country, and I encourage you not to do anything to change that," said Bill Caylor, the group's president. "We need to make this industry healthy, and we do not need more regulations."Most speakers focused on what they said was mountaintop removal's ability to provide level land in an area where economic development is stymied by the lack of potential development sites.Under federal law, coal operators can only leave mined land flat if they propose concrete plans for future development of that land. But studies in West Virginia and Kentucky have found that rarely happens.Hazard resident Bernie Faulkner read a long list of businesses - including several factories, health-care facilities, retailers and fast-food restaurants - that he said have been built on former mining sites in the area. "If that's not economic development, I don't know what is, and these could not have been put on the side of a hill," Faulkner said.Another speaker added, referring to one of Hazard's newest businesses, "Where are we going to put a Super Wal-Mart if we don't have a flat place?"The second of the two public hearings is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. at the Little Theater of the Charleston Civic Center.Information on the mountaintop removal study is available at www.epa .gov/reg3/mtntop/.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.