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Mountaintop removal study hearings to be held this week

Coalfield residents, environmental activists, miners and industry officials will get a chance this week to help decide how federal regulators conduct a first-of-its-kind study of mountaintop removal mining.Four federal agencies and one state agency have scheduled three public hearings in West Virginia to accept public input on the two-year environmental impact study.The hearings run Tuesday through Thursday, and will be held in Summersville, Charleston and Logan.Federal officials agreed to conduct the study to settle part of a federal court lawsuit environmentalists filed to try to curb mountaintop removal mining.The partial settlement, announced in late December, has been criticized by both sides.Coal industry officials say it will shut down mining in the state. Environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough to protect mountains and streams from mining abuses.The four federal agencies - the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Office of Surface Mining and the Fish and Wildlife Service - asked citizens, businesses and community groups to comment on issues and concerns they want included in the study. The state Division of Environmental Protection has joined in the effort, and other Appalachian states will be asked to participate as well.The four federal agencies published identical Federal Register notices Feb. 5 to announce the hearings.According to the notices, the study will "consider developing agency policies, guidance, and coordinated agency decision-making processes to minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, the adverse environmental effects to waters of the United States and to fish and wildlife resources from mountaintop mining operations, and to the environmental resources that could be affected by the size and location of fill material in valley fill sites.
"The number of mountaintop mining operations that utilize valley fills, as well as the scale of individual operations, have increased in recent years in West Virginia," the notices said."This EIAS will evaluate significant environmental impacts associated with these operations on water quality, streams, aquatic and terrestrial habitat, habitat fragmentation, the hydrological balance, and other individual and cumulative effects. Federal and state agencies are increasingly concerned over the lack of comprehensive data regarding valley fill operations, and have initiated a number of studies to address these data gaps."In a news release, DEP lawyer Russ Hunter said, "The DEP is encouraged by the agreement of all the agencies to proceed with describing and quantifying environmental impacts related to valley fills and associated mining practices."The hearings will be held:At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Nicholas County Veterans' Memorial Park in Summersville.
From 2 to 4 p.m. and at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the rotunda of Riggleman Hall at the University of Charleston.At 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Chief Logan State Park in Logan.Written comments will be accepted through March 31. They should be sent to William Hoffman, EPA, 3ES30, 1650 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19103-2029, or by e-mail to more information, call Hoffman at (215) 814-2995. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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