Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., has urged federal regulators to help coal companies avoid lengthy environmental reviews that could delay mountaintop removal mining permits.Last week, Wise asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials to work with coal companies that don't want to be subject to a new policy that mandates more permit scrutiny.Wise made the call in response to a request from A.T. Massey Coal Co.Massey wanted Wise to help them avoid the new federal policy being applied to a new permit for the company's Alex Energy complex along the Nicholas-Clay county border, in Wise's district.Wise declined to write a letter on Massey's behalf. He said he wanted to avoid getting involved in specific permit disputes.But Wise said he called EPA Regional Administrator Michael McCabe and urged him to meet with companies who think the new policy should not apply to their mines or want to figure out how to change mining plans so it doesn't apply.Wise said, "I'm not asking them to adjust the process. I am asking them to see where adjustments can be made in the permits to meet the requirements of EPA and [the U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers."Last August, Wise called for a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until legal questions about the mining practice were settled."So many substantial questions have arisen on federal, state and judicial levels, the only responsible thing to do is to have a temporary moratorium on any new mountaintop removal permits until OSM and the governor's commission have issued their reports and these important legal questions are settled," Wise said at the time.In an interview Friday, Wise said he believes many of the problems he was worried about concerning mountaintop removal have been solved."I think people aren't recognizing the progress we've made," Wise said. "I think we've come a long way since a year ago, when people weren't complying with the environmental or economic requirements on mountaintop removal."Since Wise called for a permit moratorium, three major events concerning mountaintop removal have occurred:A task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood issued a report calling for reforms in state laws and regulations governing mountaintop removal. The governor has not proposed legislation to follow up on any of the task force suggestions.The U.S. Office of Surface Mining issued a report calling for even more broad-ranging improvements in mountaintop removal legislation. But the report has not been finalized, and no changes in policy have been made based on its recommendations.Environmentalists filed a lawsuit to try to curb mountaintop removal mining. Part of the lawsuit has been settled, but the coal industry is fighting that settlement, which would require the more extensive environmental reviews.During an anti-mountaintop removal rally Jan. 30, environmental group lobbyist Norm Steenstra challenged Wise to take a stand on mountaintop removal if he runs for governor in 2000.Steenstra called on Wise to "take the lead and join us in saying ëWe're going to stop mountaintop removal.'"Wise said Friday he has no plans to work toward a ban on mountaintop removal."I don't support doing away with mountaintop removal entirely," Wise said."I do think it needs to be properly regulated."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.