Gov. Cecil Underwood on Tuesday rejected a request from a coalfield residents' group that he form a new committee to write mountaintop removal coal mining legislation.Dan Page, the governor's press spokesman, said that Underwood will not be proposing any legislation to follow up on the recommendations of his mountaintop removal task force."We tried to do that and that was short-circuited by the events of last Friday," Page said.On Friday morning, members of the West Virginia Organizing Project tried to attend a meeting of a committee Underwood and legislative leaders formed to write a mountaintop removal bill. Jim Teets, the governor's chief of staff, kicked the citizens' group members out of the meeting and said all future meetings would be closed to the public.
Later in the day, the committee was disbanded by Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh. The trio blamed their action on a Gazette reporter and editor who questioned whether the committee had to comply with the state Open Governmental Proceedings Act."It became a near-spectacle," Page said Tuesday. "It's very difficult to draft a bill in public, with the potential for interruptions and that sort of thing."Victoria Moore and Ralph Preece of the Organizing Project wrote to Underwood on Monday, asking him to reconsider and form another bill-writing group. The Organizing Project generally supports some of the governor's task force proposals, which call for more limits on mountaintop removal blasting and other impacts on communities."We feel it is important for the bill to keep coal mines operating and address the adverse effects on the citizens, the air they breathe, the water they drink and the homes in which they live," Moore and Preece said in their letter to the governor.Moore and Preece added that they felt the bill-writing group should have more citizen and environmental group representatives and that "the meeting should be open to the public."State law says that public bodies which will make recommendations to governing bodies, such as the Legislature and the administration, must generally be open to the public.In a related matter on Tuesday, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining said it would delay the release of its final report on a review on mountaintop removal permitting in West Virginia. OSM Director Kathy Karpan said she would delay its release to allow more public comment. The comment period, which had ended Jan. 15, has been extended until Feb. 5, Karpan said. Previously, OSM officials had said a final report might be released before the end of January. The report, issued in draft form in early December, was already four months late.Also Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II delayed until next week a hearing on the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy's effort to halt a 3,100-acre Arch Coal Inc. mountaintop removal mine in Logan County.The hearing, originally scheduled for today, will now be held Wednesday. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.