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EPA asked to help in mining dispute

House Judiciary Chairman Rick Staton has invited the regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to make recommendations on how the Legislature can regulate coal mining by the mountaintop removal method.Staton, D-Wyoming, sent a letter Thursday to W. Michael McCabe expressing his "personal frustration" with EPA for "its hands off approach the last several years regarding this issue."When mitigation for loss of streams was studied by the Legislature in 1996, Staton said EPA offered no recommendations or substantial comments on how to resolve "what I believe is clearly an issue with significant federal law implications."Last year, Staton said EPA provided "no helpful recommendations or comments.""I will make whatever arrangements necessary to gain your agency's input as we develop legislation these upcoming weeks," Staton wrote to McCabe.Under a law passed last year, coal companies were allowed to disturb up to 480 acres of streams if firms met certain conditions before having to mitigate for the loss of the streams. Previously, the state Division of Environmental Protection had a 250 acre limit under a policy.The larger area was unacceptable to EPA's regional III office in Phil adelphia and McCabe opposed the legislation. The governor later ordered DEP to revert to its prior practice. Meanwhile, Gov. Cecil Underwood, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, sent a letter earlier this month to EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner."We seek guidance from your office so that the unacceptable relationship that has evolved between EPA Region III and the state of West Virginia may come to a fair and equitable end," their letter said.The three top state officials said the 250 acre impact area was increased to 480 acres because the larger area was "precisely the same acreage level utilized in Kentucky, apparently with EPA Region IV's full concurrence."They asked the agency for "guidance on what a sound mitigation bill must contain."
They said EPA Region III had used its oversight over National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permits to object to valley fills."The result has proven frustration to coal operators. EPA Region III is under no particular deadline for processing responses to permit objections and seems incapable of prescribing precise measures that coal operators must achieve to obtain their NPDES permits."Browner has not responded.In addition, two state senators and two delegates sent a letter Thursday to McCabe, saying permits were unnecessarily being delayed.
The state's "job base needlessly erodes as you and your federal colleagues engage in some sort of bureaucratic game of one-upmanship while jeopardizing the livelihood and income potential of state residents."The letter was sent by Senators Shirley Love, D-Fayette, and Randy Schoonover, D-Greenbrier, and Delegates John W. Shelton, D-Nicholas, and William Stemple, D-Calhoun.The four lawmakers urged McCabe to cooperate with the executive and legislative branches of government.One permit being affected is for a mining operation in Clay County which employs 400 people.Staton said his committee's lawyer is going to start working on a draft of a bill next week.Mountaintop removal is not a good practice, but "in some areas it's necessary," Staton said.
To contact staff writer Fanny Seiler, call 348-5198.
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