United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Tuesday that coalfield residents need more protection from blasting at mountaintop removal strip mines.
Roberts also said coal operators must be forced to plan long-term economic development when they reclaim mountaintop removal mine sites.
In the UMW's first detailed public statements since a controversy erupted over mountaintop removal a year ago, Roberts said strip miners want to keep their jobs.
But, the Cabin Creek native emphasized, "This union has a proud history of working not only in the interests of its own members, but on behalf of all working people and the communities they live in.
"We fully intend to uphold that tradition," Roberts said.
Roberts spoke and submitted written comments Tuesday to a task force Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed to look into complaints about mountaintop removal.
The UMW leader had been mostly silent on the issue for months, but had received behind-the-scenes pressure from local union leaders - and from Arch Coal Inc. - to speak out in favor of the mining practice.
Unlike old-time strip mining, mountaintop removal blasts away entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into nearby valleys and streams.
In his statement, Roberts emphasized that the coal industry is still a vital part of the economy in many Southern West Virginia communities.
In Boone County, for example, 42 percent of the work force is directly employed by the coal industry. In coal counties of the state, more than 10 percent of all jobs are directly linked to mining, Roberts said.
"We make no apologies for seeking to promote the jobs available in the mining and related industries," Roberts said.
"We do believe that jobs provided in coal mining are worth fighting for and preserving," he said. "This is particularly true in our economy, in which service sector jobs are often very low-paying and without benefits."
But, Roberts said, "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 degradation of the ir 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," he said.
Roberts said that the UMW supports a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal for an environmental impact study of mountaintop removal.
Such a move, proposed to the task force by EPA, would allow new permits to continue to be issued while regulators study mountaintop removal's effects.
Roberts, considered one of the nation's more liberal labor leaders, said that he also supports legislative action to make it easier for coalfield residents to force coal companies to pay for blasting damage to homes and water supplies.
The union suggested that coal companies should be made legally liable for any damage that occurs within one mile of their operations.
"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," Roberts said.
Roberts also spoke to the controversy over whether mountaintop removal mines in the state have been improperly permitted without post-mining land development plans. He noted that the law does not allow mountaintop removal mines to be reclaimed as "fish a nd wildlife habitat and recreation lands," the most popular post-mining land use.
"We believe that federal law should be strictly enforced and that post-mining development in approximate original contour variances should include higher uses than the present use such as real economic development plans, and specifically should not inc lude simply 'fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands'."
Roberts said the UMW also supports the repeal of legislation, signed by Underwood over widespread opposition, that makes it cheaper for coal companies to dump strip mine waste in valley fills.
Roberts said the union believes that "the overwhelming majority of mountains in the state of West Virginia are unsuitable for mountaintop removal mining techniques.
"We also believe that the mining sites throughout West Virginia with historical significance, such as the historic portions of Blair Mountain and the Stanley family farm on Kayford Mountain, must be preserved and thus should be off-limits for mining."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.