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Forestry chief resigns over mining

Division of Forestry Director Bill Maxey says he is retiring because the Underwood administration tried to stifle his opposition to mountaintop removal strip mining, which he calls a blight akin to AIDS.Underwood aides forced him to issue a statement toning down his position, Maxey says.And the Division of Environmental Protection and federal Office of Surface Mining tried to get him to approve regulations that would justify blasting the tops off mountains to get at coal seams, leaving flat, treeless expanses and valleys filled with debris.Administration and agency officials deny the allegations.Maxey, whose resignation was effective Saturday, also says he quit because Underwood's two-year delay in reappointing him was a "sort of a slap in the face.""For two years I sat there not knowing if I was going to have a job or not. That poisoned me on the job," Maxey says.The delay made him reluctant to voice his opinion on mountaintop removal, which Underwood supports, fearing he would be fired.Maxey, who has held the post since 1993, was reappointed by Underwood on Aug. 24 and confirmed by the Senate on Oct. 20."I think mountaintop removal is analogous to serious disease, like AIDS," says Maxey, who has been an opponent of surface mining since before the Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.He spoke against the act to a congressional subcommittee while he was a tenured associate professor of forest management at West Virginia University, where he taught for 11 years. Maxey also has worked 15 years as a forester for Westvaco Corp. and seven years for Georgia Pacific.Although the law requires mined land to be reclaimed for an equal or greater use than its pre-mining use, most becomes grassland, not a timber-rich forest, Maxey says. And procedures that could make the land good for trees are not being widely used, he says.Timber is the only renewable natural resource and the industry employs more than 30,000 people, Maxey says. By comparison, the coal industry employs about 18,000, including about 4,400 at surface mines, according to the West Virginia Coal Association. Maxey also says that Underwood has never consulted him on forestry issues during the governor's two-year tenure."For 44 years I went to work with enthusiasm. I couldn't wait to get to work. The last two years I had to force myself," says Maxey, 64.The only contact he had with Underwood's office was after Secretary of State Ken Hechler, an opponent of mountaintop removal, quoted Maxey as saying the practice had "destroyed" 250,000 acres of forest.
Two Underwood aides called him and ordered him to issue a rebuttal, Maxey says. Instead, he put out a statement saying 300,000 acres of forest had been "disturbed.""I had to, against my will, really, say that it could be properly reforested. ... That isn't what I really wanted to say. That's what I was told to say," Maxey says."Absolutely untrue," says Underwood spokesman Dan Page, one of the two aides Maxey says pressured him.Page says he called Maxey to see if Hechler had quoted him correctly.
He and Jimmy Wedge, who says he called Maxey on an unrelated matter, say they suggested Maxey clarify his position if he believed Hechler had misrepresented it."I've never ordered anybody to do anything against his will and wouldn't," Page said.
Maxey would not have been fired for publicly opposing mountaintop removal, he said.Neither he nor Wedge knew why it took Underwood so long to reappoint Maxey.If he could not live with the Underwood administration's opinion on mountaintop removal, "Why did he take the job?" Wedge asked.Maxey also says he was pressured by the state DEP and the federal OSM to approve a phrase Maxey says would justify leveling mountains. The agencies wanted the phrase to be included in specifications written by the Division of Forestry for voluntary reclamation of mines into woodlands.The phrase, which is in 1997 state surface mining regulations, says flat or gently rolling land on a site reclaimed to woodland is "essential for the operation of mechanical harvesting equipment."Maxey says the idea that timber can be cut only on flat land is ridiculous because loggers have used automated equipment on West Virginia's hills for decades.John Ailes, chief of the DEP's Office of Mining and Reclamation, says someone in his office may have asked Maxey to include the phrase only to emphasize the existing law."We want to try to get more reforestation. That's important," Ailes says. "I don't understand where he's coming from at all."Dennis Boyles, regulatory programs specialist at the OSM's Charleston office, denied his agency pressured Maxey.Boyles says the phrase refers to an exception to the 1977 law that requires mountaintop removal mines to be reclaimed to their "approximate original contour."Coal operators do not have to do that if they prove the site can be logged only with equipment that cannot be used on hills.Maxey says few mines are reclaimed to their "approximate original contour."Also, most mines strip topsoil and do not replace it, Maxey says. The soil that is returned is covered with lime and hydroseeded with grasses, which makes the ground too alkaline for trees."In other words, our valuable hardwood forest is lost for the next 150 to 200 years," Maxey says.Coal companies also compact the soil. "Then you are trying to plant a tree in concrete. It doesn't work," Maxey says.If coal companies returned the topsoil, including several feet of weathered sandstone that was not compacted or leveled, the land would immediately be ready for seedlings, Maxey says."If we can't get it stopped, this is the next best thing, a last resort. We need to stop mountaintop removal," Maxey says.
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