West Virginia's two U.S. senators and three congressmen have all urged federal regulators to hurry up and decide how to enforce mining laws so coal companies can start getting permits again. The five Democratic elected officials signed a joint letter to Carol Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The letter was sent on Oct. 30, the same day Arch Coal Inc. threatened to lay off 400 miners if the company doesn't get a new mining permit soon. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller signed the letter. Reps. Alan Mollohan, Nick Rahall and Bob Wise also signed it. "The Arch Coal announcement evokes a number of concerns regarding mining in West Virginia primarily as they relate to the implementation of the Clean Water Act," the letter said. "We are particularly troubled by a perception that the regulatory machinery envisioned by Congress with the passage of the Clean Water Act has ground to a virtual halt," the letter said. At least three proposed mountaintop removal mining permits are on hold. EPA has stopped the state from issuing Clean Water Act permits for mines proposed by Arch Coal and A.T. Massey Coal Co. EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe says the state Division of Environmental Protection and the companies have not proven that the mines would not violate federal rules that prohibit degrading streams. At the same time, EPA and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, along with other agencies, have been trying to figure out which agency has jurisdiction over what regulations governing mountaintop removal. An OSM study on the issue, due out in mid-August, is now three months late. A federal court lawsuit, filed by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, alleges that the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation has illegally issued mountaintop removal permits that don't comply with the Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. One of the permits EPA has held up would allow Arch Coal's Hobet Mining Inc. to expand its Dal-Tex mine near Blair in Logan County. The 3,100-acre permit application was filed nearly two years ago. Rahall and Wise have both publicly called for more federal regulatory scrutiny of mountaintop removal. However, both have also said mining needs to continue. Wise in particular has said permits should be issued, even if studies of potential mining impacts aren't finished yet. Rockefeller and Byrd had stayed out of the mountaintop removal controversy until now. Neither has responded to requests made months ago for their positions on the issue. Little mountaintop removal goes on in Mollohan's district in Northern West Virginia. "While we respect that the agencies charged with protecting the environment are now re-examining how their responsibilities are to be carried out, we are troubled that during this re-evaluation the livelihoods of coal miners in a disadvantaged part of the state hang in the balance," the representatives said in their letter. "We believe that no one benefits from what is perceived as an unstable regulatory environment," the letter said. "We know, all too well, the difficulties visited upon mining families who face the uncertainty of layoffs," the letter said. "As such, we would like to see this matter resolved expeditiously so that these families may be spared the unnecessary hardship of living in a limbo of uncertainty. The letter added, "Moreover, the broader issue of regulatory policy concerning mountaintop removal mining cannot be allowed to twist in the wind indefinitely. "We therefore urge you to resolve the outstanding issues in a timely fashion so that job losses may be forestalled and possible improvements may be implemented to bring about an efficient and environmentally responsive resolution to permit applications in the future," it said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.