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DEP defends Blair mountaintop permit

The largest mountaintop removal mining permit in West Virginia history is also one of the best ever issued by state regulators, a Division of Environmental Protection engineer testified Wednesday.Ken Stollings, an engineer with the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation defended the 3,100-acre Arch Coal Inc. permit during a hearing in federal court in Charleston."I've read every page of it, and I think it's one of the best permits I've ever looked at," Stollings told Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden.Stollings testified as Haden continued a hearing on whether to issue a preliminary injunction against Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining's proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine near Blair, Logan County.Haden halted the mine until Feb. 23 at the request of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a group of coalfield residents.At times Wednesday, Stollings left Haden exasperated as he dodged environmental group lawyer Pat McGinley's questions about various mining regulations.McGinley asked Stollings if he made written findings that Hobet's permit application qualified for a waiver of a rule prohibiting mining within 100 feet of streams. "I do not make a justification for them to do this, I just state what their justification is in the permit," Stollings said.Haden interjected, "The way this is being pursued, I have no idea whether there is or is not a finding."McGinley continued to try to get a clear answer from Stollings about the buffer zone rule and a contemporaneous reclamation variance that DEP also granted to Hobet.Haden interrupted again, and said, "This is not worth it.
"The witness simply won't answer the question," Haden said. "I'd say move on. I will draw whatever inference I need to from this."Eventually, Stollings testified that the Hobet permit was not a mountaintop removal mine."This permit is not a clear, distinct, mountaintop removal mine," he said. A minute later, however, Stollings agreed with McGinley that the mine fit the legal definition of a mountaintop removal mine.Also Wednesday, Arch Coal Samples Mine general manager Peter Lawson showed Haden a 45-minute company promotional slide show meant to describe mountaintop removal mining techniques.
Lawson presented slides that touted Arch Coal's 2,500 employees and $450 million investment in West Virginia. He showed other graphics he said showed why coal companies need to fill in streams with mine waste.Under cross examination, Lawson testified that the Samples Mine received an approximate original contour variance on a permit that proposed a post-mining land use of fish and wildlife habitat, which is not allowed under federal law.Lawson said the flattened area was needed so Arch Coal could relocate a high-voltage power line at the Samples Mine.McGinley asked, "How is fish and wildlife habitat advanced by the high-voltage power line?"Lawson replied, "It was not intended to enhance the area for wildlife habitat, it was to relocate the power line for future mining."The hearing will continue this morning. Haden said he hopes to conclude testimony by Friday afternoon.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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