To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702, or e-mail kw...@wvgazette.com.
A ban on mountaintop removal mining with large valley fills would reduce West Virginia's annual coal production by 10 percent, according to a new industry study.The report, produced by a consultant for coal land-holding companies, is the first concrete estimate of the potential impacts of restricting mountaintop removal.John Feddock, an engineer with the firm Marshall Miller & Associates, concluded the ban would cost the state between 17 and 18 million tons of its annual production.West Virginia produced an average of 165 million tons of coal a year during the 1990s, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.In his report, Feddock found that if mountaintop removal were banned, some coal reserves targeted for that form of mining would never be mined.Others could be mined by other methods, such as underground mining or smaller-scale strip mining.Under the ban, the industry would lose about $490 million in revenues each year, based on an estimated sales price of $28 per ton of coal. State and local governments would lose $37 million in annual taxes and fees, or about 10 percent of the industry's annual payments to government agencies. Coal owners would lose $34 million in yearly profits, the study said.For more than a year, coal industry officials have argued that a ban on mountaintop removal would be devastating.Now, mining critics say the Feddock report shows the industry has exaggerated mountaintop removal's economic importance to the state."That's not very much, is it?" Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said Thursday."It certainly does not shut down all mining," Rank said. "It's just so much less than they would have us believe."Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, defended his group's previous positions on mountaintop removal's importance to the industry.Raney said that any business would consider a 10 percent cut in revenue significant, just as any worker would think a 10 percent pay cut was a big pay cut."I think it's substantial," Raney said Wednesday.Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to uncover valuable low-sulfur coal seams. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.All surface mining accounts for about one-third of West Virginia's annual coal production. Most coal produced in the state comes from large underground mines.No one knows exactly how much of that one-third comes from mountaintop removal mines. Industry officials and regulators argue over exactly what constitutes a mountaintop removal mine under the law.A federal court lawsuit filed by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is trying to rein in mountaintop removal.Lawyers are close to settling most of the issues in that suit.But a judge will still decide a crucial issue over whether valley fills must be limited to much smaller creeks under the federal 100-foot stream buffer zone rule.A ruling against the industry on that issue could hurt coal mining more than a ban on mountaintop removal. The buffer zone rule could seriously restrict all surface mining, as well as underground mines that dump preparation plant waste in stream beds.Last year, the National Council of Coal Lessors, a trade group of land-holding companies, and Western Pocahontas Properties, a large land company, intervened in the lawsuit.In June, lawyers for the council and Western Pocahontas signed on to a proposed "findings of fact and conclusions of law" document filed by various industry groups and the state Division of Environmental Protection.The document stated that "a prohibition on mountaintop removal with large-scale excess spoil disposal areas" would reduce state coal production by 10 percent. It said that this prohibition would require coal owners "to sacrifice all economic benefits or productive uses of all or a part of their property."The findings of fact document was based in part on the Feddock study, which was provided to Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II in mid-May.Feddock studied two mountaintop removal sites in Boone and Mingo counties, and extrapolated his results for the rest of the state. The study did not estimate how many jobs would be lost if mountaintop removal were banned.