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Mining panel wants governor, Legislature to act

Members of a gubernatorial task force have come up with a long list of ways the state could protect residents and the environment from mountaintop removal mining.Now, task force members said Wednesday night, it's up to Gov. Cecil Underwood and the Legislature to put those suggestions into effect."This is probably just the beginning of the process," said Marshall University President Wade Gilley, who chaired the task force. "The governor and the Legislature will have to pick up the ball and go from here."The 16-person task force, appointed by Underwood in June, met Wednesday night for the last time.Members approved, with mostly minor changes, three committee studies that will make up the bulk of their report to the governor. They also approved an executive summary that completes the four-chapter report.The executive summary made it clear that task force members do not believe the public debate over mountaintop removal should end with their report."The balance between preservation of the natural landscape and surface mining is an inherently political decision vested in the legislative branch," the summary said."Consequently, the Legislature should consider whether public values compel restrictions on the degree of alteration in the natural landscape and the environment, especially in regard to large-scale mountaintop mining operations."Among the task force's final recommendations:More study is needed to determine the long-term environmental impacts of blasting off entire mountaintops to reach coal seams, and dumping leftover rock and earth into miles-long valley fill waste piles that bury streams. Studies should examine the current and potential extent of mountaintop removal and the long-term and cumulative impacts on water quality and wildlife.A new office should be created within the state Division of Environmental Protection to regulate the impacts of mountaintop removal on the people who live near these giant mines.Among other things, the office should review mining permits to make sure they address potential community impacts, make sure coal companies treat people fairly when they buy out residents near mine sites, and help residents recoup damages from mine blasting.The Legislature should rescind a bill passed earlier this year to make it cheaper for companies to bury streams beneath valley fill waste piles.Before the state creates a new policy to govern "mitigation" of stream losses to valley fills, federal agencies should come up with a nationwide rule on the matter.
The governor should work with state agencies "to assure rigorous and consistent enforcement of existing environmental regulatory requirements applicable to mountaintop removal operations."These efforts should focus on more strict enforcement of water quality rules and the approximate original contour mine land reclamation standard.The only major change in the task force report since drafts were issued two weeks ago was a call for an expansion of rules to tighten post-mining land use regulations.Draft reports had suggested that the state should not allow mountaintop removal mines to be reclaimed as "fish and wildlife habitat," the post-mining land use currently most popular with coal operators.Drafts had also called for a more rigorous review of mines that propose to reclaim the flattened land for industrial and commercial uses.Larry George, chairman of the panel's economic committee, said his group decided to expand those recommendations to apply to all surface mines - not just mountaintop removal mines that receive an approximate original contour variance to allow land to be flattened.
If adopted by a change in state mining regulations, the proposal would mean coal companies couldn't get around the AOC rule, or tough requirements to show flattened land is needed for development. It would amount to a major tightening of surface mine permitting, George said."We decided to take our recommendation and make it applicable across the board," said George, a former top state mine regulator who now represents coal companies as a private lawyer.The task force recommendations were adopted with only one member voting against them.John McFerrin, an activist with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, submitted a written statement to explain his vote. McFerrin is currently hospitalized and couldn't attend Wednesday's meeting.McFerrin said he could not support any report which did not call for a ban on mountaintop removal."There is much in the report with which I agree," said McFerrin, the lone environmental group representative on the task force. "On balance, however, there is nothing to persuade me that the practice should continue."The task force report was to be submitted to Underwood today. A spokesman has said the governor wants a week to review it before commenting on it. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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