Gov. Cecil Underwood is expected today to announce the members of a panel to write the administration's version of legislation on mountaintop removal coal mining.But the formation of the group has already drawn complaints from environmental groups who say they are being left out of the process.The group, said to include six to eight members of various interest groups, will be chaired by former state Energy Commissioner Larry George.Other members were to include Ralph Preece, a Mingo County activist with the West Virginia Organizing Project; Ben Greene, lobbyist for the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association; and coal operator Don Nicewonder.Dan Page, the governor's press spokesman, said a complete list would not be released until today.George said a meeting had been scheduled for this morning so the group could get instructions on its charge from Jim Teets, the governor's chief of staff."My expectation was we were going to look at all of the issues," George said, adding that the panel was not limited to writing new mining mitigation legislation to replace a controversial bill passed last year."It's to take what the task force did and turn it into legislation," said George, who chaired one committee of Underwood's task force to investigation complaints about mountaintop removal. "This is the nuts and bolts process."Underwood has been criticized by environmentalists and legislative leaders for not mentioning mountaintop removal in his State of the State address last week.So far, the governor has also not proposed any bills to address the issue. Underwood has not publicly supported any of the specific reforms that were proposed by his task force in December.
Norm Steenstra, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said his organization was not asked by the governor's office to have a representative serve on the new panel."I think we're totally out of their loop," Steenstra said."What the governor is trying to do is somehow project the image that mountaintop removal is fixed and nothing the governor will do is going to fix mountaintop removal," Steenstra said.Page said that the new group is not a repeat of the task force process. The task force came up with broad ideas on mountaintop removal, Page said, while the new group will actually write legislation."People have asked why the governor didn't have a bill and what the governor is doing," Page said. "This is what the governor is doing."
At least one bill to repeal last year's mining mitigation law has been introduced in the state Senate, but Underwood has said he does not support doing away with the entire bill.Underwood has not publicly supported any of the bills proposed by a legislative interim committee, including one that would expand from 300 feet to 1,000 feet the buffer zone between active surface mines and occupied dwellings.Page said he did not know who has been and has not been asked to serve on the new panel. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.