Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., plans to review in more detail citizen complaints about lax enforcement of strip-mining regulations before plotting any action to respond, a spokesman said.“We are in the process of reviewing the hearing record to determine how to proceed further,” said Jim Zoia, a longtime Rahall aide and staff director for the House Natural Resources Committee.Last week, Rahall presided over a nearly four-hour committee hearing to examine issues surrounding enforcement of the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.Rahall, who became committee chairman when the Democrats regained the congressional majority, scheduled the hearing to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the law on Aug. 3. Rahall served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the law.
The hearing, Zoia said, revealed “several areas where it is already apparent that further oversight is needed.”No decisions are expected until after Congress returns from its summer recess, which starts Aug. 6 and lasts through Labor Day.Nationally, Rahall is a leader on many environmental issues and since taking over the committee, he has challenged many Bush administration policies that he says favored extractive industries, politicized science, and threatened public lands.In West Virginia, however, environmental groups remain upset that Rahall has not spoken out against mountaintop removal. Lately, they are also concerned about his support for congressional efforts to boost turning coal into various liquid fuels.Rahall has said he supports mountaintop removal, but he also has expressed concern that federal and state regulators aren’t enforcing a strict “approximate original contour” reclamation rule or requiring mine operators to submit post-mining development plans for leveled-out land.“As Chairman Rahall noted during the hearing ... after 30 years, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement still has not developed guidelines on what constitutes returning mined land to its approximate original contour,” Zoia said. “This strikes at the very heart of SMCRA.”At last week’s hearing, state Environmental Protection Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer painted a better picture for enforcement of reclamation and post-mining land-use requirements in West Virginia.“The permitting process, in fact, has become a planning tool for companies and communities,” Timmermeyer said. “The SMCRA requirement to reclaim mined lands and return them to uses equal or better than those which existed before mining has become an important economic development component for West Virginia.”But Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, testified that “almost no post-mining land in Appalachia” is developed for industrial, commercial, agriculture, residential or public facilities uses.“The post-mining land is in isolated mountain areas, the land is unstable for building and it will no longer support native vegetation,” Lovett said. “There is no surface or groundwater available on the post-mining sites because the mountain has been blown to bits.”The Bush administration, Lovett said, redirected a federal study that was supposed to find tougher regulations, into a project to speed up permitting of more mountaintop removal mines.
Rahall responded that he felt Lovett was too negative and that he took Lovett’s comments as a “personal affront.”Later, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney testified that the state’s coal industry is providing good jobs, while performing quality reclamation.Unfortunately, Raney said, the industry and its workers “are threatened by these frivolous lawsuits and continued attacks.”Raney urged Rahall to work on legislation to clear up any “overlapping redundancy” between SMCRA and the Clean Water Act that he says has made mountaintop removal an easy target for “harassing lawsuits and judicially inspired regulatory confusion.”Raney said mine workers are “practicing environmentalists” who simply want to “continue to work and live uninterrupted as they mine the coal which not only powers the economic engines of this country, but provides the revenue stream for the [Abandoned Mine Land] program and is the economic lifeline for our seven Appalachian states.”Rahall told Raney that his testimony was “right on target.”