Gov. Cecil Underwood stuck by the old saying that "Coal is West Virginia," Wednesday night, but dodged any mention of the industry's biggest current controversy: mountaintop removal mining.In his annual State of the State address, the governor attacked federal and international efforts to regulate coal's environmental impacts and called for a national energy policy grounded in coal."As a nation, we must emphasize the proper use of coal - our most abundant resource - to meet out energy needs," said Underwood, a former Island Creek Coal executive.Underwood proposed no new environmental protection initiatives and, in his 1999-2000 budget, did not include money for the Division of Environmental Protection's Office of Water Resources."The speech only helps to assure Governor Underwood's place in history as West Virginia's most anti-environment administration," said Norm Steenstra, chief lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council."There is not one positive initiative in it," Steenstra said. "The speech is a road map back to the environmental dark ages of the 1950s."Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, saw things a little differently."I thought the speech was great," Raney said."Coal is a very big part of West Virginia and if people feel like there are problems with coal, people are big enough to sit down and try to address them," Raney said.
In his 55-minute speech, Underwood renewed his attacks on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's moves to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants."Companies at risk include some of West Virginia's finest employers: mining, transportation, utilities and manufacturing companies that pay attractive salaries and benefits to support working families," Underwood said.The governor also repeated his attacks on the international "Kyoto Protocol" to limit air pollution - again, mostly from coal-fired power plants - that causes global climate change."This ill-conceived treaty asks developed nations to impose strict emission standards to reduce the threat of global warming," Underwood said. "Remarkably, this same treaty exempts developing nations from these air emissions standards."Dave Flannery, an environmental lawyer who represents power companies and other industry, said he was pleased the governor made climate change and the air pollution rules a major part of the speech.
"I continue to be surprised that the governor places those so high on his agenda," Flannery said. "The governor is, I think, rightly concerned about what the federal government has done on those two issues."
Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said she was shocked that Underwood did not mention mountaintop removal mining at all in his speech."It's truly unbelievable," Rank said. "I really thought he would say 'there have been a lot of concerns and we're taking care of it.'"A task force appointed by Underwood recommended a series of regulatory changes to curb mountaintop removal's impacts on nearby communities, and proposed the repeal of last year's controversial mining mitigation bill. The governor has not publicly supported any of the task force proposals."It's amazing that he continues to ignore the problems we are causing to our people and the environment," Rank said.In other environmental matters, the governor did not include in his proposed budget for the next financial year any increases in funding for the state DEP.DEP officials had requested $12.3 million in new general revenue money, most of which would have been used to beef up the Office of Water Resources. A coalition of environmental and industry groups asked the governor to approve $4.9 million in new general revenue money, along with $739,000 in increased industry fees, to fund water office improvements alone.
In his speech, Underwood singled out a Westvaco contract with The Nature Conservancy to conduct an environmental audit of the company's 350,000 acres of forest in the state. The study will identify environmentally sensitive sites, including habitats for endangered species."This model of cooperation leads to decisions built on common ground and avoids divisive, nonproductive confrontation," Underwood said.The governor contrasted it to other, unspecified environmental issues, where he said, "groups representing the extreme positions have largely shaped the environmental management and debate of our time.""I certainly do not propose to ignore environmental quality," Underwood said. "I do insist that we look beyond present-day rhetoric and narrow thinking to cast a new century model."Government needs to establish a balance between costs and benefits in the exercise of its environmental stewardship," the governor said. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.