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Mountaintop bill weak, environmentalists assert

A mountaintop removal bill being pushed by legislative leaders won't fix widespread problems associated with large-scale mining, environmentalists say.Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, moved the leadership bill out of a Senate committee on Monday, with the hope that it would gain support from industry and citizen groups.Coal industry lobbyists complained that the measure would create additional bureaucratic hurdles for mine permitting.The West Virginia Environmental Council stuck to backing its own mountaintop removal legislation. Council leaders say other bills do little to address the issue."According to the polls, 70 percent of West Virginians want the Legislature to do something about mountaintop removal," said Norm Steenstra, lead lobbyist for the environmental council.The environmental group's bill would tighten restrictions on post-mining land uses, so that mountaintop removal coal operators would have to provide economic or community development after mining is finished.Under federal law, mountaintop removal mines can be exempted from the approximate original contour reclamation requirement only if they propose land use improvements - such as industry development, schools or public parks - that require flattened land.State Division of Environmental Protection records, however, show that DEP officials rarely enforce those requirements.The environmental group's bill would fix weaknesses in state mining laws that a U.S. Office of Surface Mining oversight report concluded lead to many of the mountaintop removal permitting violations.
Parts of the environmental group bill also mirror proposals made by Gov. Cecil Underwood's task force on montaintop removal.The council's legislation was sponsored in the House by Delegates Susan Hubbard, D-Cabell; Mary Pearl Compton, D-Monroe; Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia; Virginia Mahan, D-Summers; Don Perdue, D-Wayne; and Bobbie Hatfield, D-Kanawha.An identical Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia.Among the provisions, it would:Eliminate "woodland" as a permissible post-mining land use on mountaintop removal sites. "Since it is false to say that one can only cut trees on flat land, the premise of the exception is bogus," the environmental council says.Eliminate "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" as a post-mining land use for mountaintop removal mining. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has never approved a previous change in state law that allowed this land use, but state DEP officials continued to use it for years.
Require a demonstrated need for the post-mining land use proposed. The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires coal operators to show the "market need" for proposed post-mining land uses, but that language was never included in state law or regulations.Require that the bond on a mountaintop removal permit not be released until the promised economic development from post-mining land uses materializes."This is the most middle of the road of the post-mining land use bills," says a flier distributed by the environmental council. "If someone does not want to support this, then he or she isn't serious about reining in [mountaintop removal]." 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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