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Mountaintop mine bill focuses on communities, not streams

A mountaintop removal bill moving through the state Senate helps people who live near mining operations, but does little to protect streams and mountains from long-term damage, a sponsor of the bill said.The Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee wrote and unanimously approved a bill that deals with blasting, community impacts, and future coalfield economic development.The measure now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.Among other things, the legislation makes it easier for residents to seek compensation when mining damages their property and requires the state Division of Environmental Protection to write a "community impact statement" on mountaintop removal proposals.The bill does not address state regulatory problems that have allowed mountaintop removal mines to be permitted without required approximate original contour variances or postmining development plans.Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, told committee members that lawmakers will leave those and other environmental issues up to a federal judge."All that's in big-time litigation right now," said Jackson, who authored the bill along with Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II has blocked the largest mountaintop removal mine proposal in state history until March 15. Haden also scheduled a trial for later this year in a broader case challenging the DEP's permitting of mountaintop removal.After the committee meeting, Jackson said the bill was modeled after recommendations he helped draw up for Gov. Cecil Underwood's mountaintop removal task force."I hope that it fully addresses the citizen outcry in terms of people directly impacted," Jackson said. "Clearly, there are people who disagree philosophically and on moral grounds with mountaintop removal, and this bill does not address their concerns."Among the bill's provisions:
Repealing part of a 1998 bill that doubled the size of streams that mining operators could bury under valley fill waste piles without compensating the state with money or in-kind projects.Creates a DEP Office of Explosives and Blasting to regulate the use of blasting in large-scale and other surface mining. The office would review blasting design plans, write rules to govern blasting and set up requirements for pre-blast surveys of nearby property.Make it easier for residents to be compensated for mining-damaged water supplies, by creating a presumption that such damage was caused by mining if the property owner had a pre-blast survey conducted.Create within the DEP an Office of Community Impact. The office would be responsible for developing studies of possible community impacts of mining proposals, and administering a claims process for property damage and land purchases by mining companies.
Under the bill, the community impact office would also be charged with trying to prepare the southern coalfields for the day when mining ends."Where implemented, large-scale mountaintop removal mining tends to extract most, if not all of the recoverable coal reserves in an accelerated fashion," the bill states. "Long dependent primarily on mining, this area must plan for a future without coal."Under the bill, the community impact office would propose infrastructure needs, recreational or educational facilities and economic development plans needed in communities where mountaintop removal occurs.Coal companies would be required by the office to include such plans in mining permit proposals, according to the bill.The bill states, "If the coal industry, and those benefitting from the extraction of mineral resources, are allowed the short-term privilege of mining our state's coal through mining practices which impact a large group of people - some in a very negative way - and through practices which will extract portions of the remaining reserves in an accelerated fashion, then with that privilege must come the responsibility of helping address the long-term needs of the people impacted by the activity." 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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