Landowners want mining permit 'flexibility'
A spokesman for large land-holding companies called Monday for more flexibility in reclamation and development of mountaintop removal coal mines.
Nick Carter, president of the National Council of Coal Lessors, said companies shouldn't be made to plan post-mining development of land flattened by mining so far ahead of time.
"Trying to decide today, when a permit is being processed, what the demand for the land will be 30 years down the road is impossible," said Carter, who is also president of Western Pocahontas Properties.
"I submit to you we need some flexibility in these regulations."
Carter was one of 10 speakers during an all-day meeting Monday of the economic subcommittee of Gov. Cecil Underwood's task force on mountaintop removal mining.
Larry George, chairman of the subcommittee, put together the meeting to hear presentations on the economics of mountaintop removal and possible uses of post-mining development rules.
Nick Fedorko, chief of the coal section of the West Virginia Geological Survey, said most coal production in West Virginia now comes from Boone, Logan and Mingo counties. It's also in those counties, Fedorko said, that mountaintop removal is concentrated.
"It's pretty clear that if you curtail or outright ban these large operations, production is going to decrease," he said.
"We don't believe it will be taken up by underground mining, at least not in the short term, and maybe not in the long term," Fedorko said.
John Feddock, vice president of the consulting firm Marshall Miller & Associates, said that mountaintop removal allows recovery of up to 90 percent of coal reserves, compared with 50 percent to 60 percent for traditional underground mines and 60 percent to 70 percent for underground longwall mining.
Mountaintop removal mines require valley fills, Feddock said, so coal companies will have some place to put the rock and earth removed to reach coal. The rock and earth can't fit in the hole where the coal was, he said, because it swells and takes up more space when it's blasted into smaller pieces during the mining process.
Jerry Eyster, director of Fieldston Consulting, said that mountaintop removal is the only thing keeping Appalachian coal competitive with large surface mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
"There is no room for costs for Central Appalachian Coal to go up," Eyster said. "The marketplace will shift to western, Powder River Basin coal and Appalachian production will decline."
Mountaintop removal mining blasts off entire hilltops to reach coal seams. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into nearby hollows, burying streams.
Much of Monday's meeting focused on possible beneficial uses of land flattened by mountaintop removal.
Dana Davis, director of the state Development Office, said his agency believes such mine sites should be left flattened "to make them an economic asset to the state and its people."
Under federal law, mountaintop removal permits are supposed to be issued only when companies have concrete plans for developing the land after mining.
A federal court lawsuit filed by environmental groups alleges that the state Division of Environmental Protection has established a "pattern and practice" of issuing illegal mountaintop removal permits without land development plans.
Carter's council and his company tried unsuccessfully to intervene in that lawsuit earlier this month.
Carter told task force committee members that his company would prefer the term "full-seam extraction method" to mountaintop removal mining.
Like other speakers, Carter said mountaintop removal is the only way coal in Southern West Virginia can be mined profitably.
"You can't force economics," Carter said. "If you could, we would have every ton of our coal mined tomorrow and be done with it."
Carter said regulators need to allow "interim land uses" for mountaintop removal mining. That way, he said, that land could be mined and flattened so that it's ready whenever someone comes up with a plan to develop it.
Carter also appeared to disagree with Davis, saying that the demand for flattened, vacant sites with infrastructure doesn't exist.
"Again, you can't force the economics," Carter said. "If the demand is there, the infrastructure will show up.
"It would be a terrible waste of taxpayers' money to put infrastructure into a site that doesn't have demand for it."