Coal industry supporters packed a public hearing Wednesday to complain about mountaintop removal permitting delays they say are costing West Virginia jobs.Lobbyists, coal company contractors and a few miners told federal regulators they don't want an environmental impact study of mountaintop removal to further stall new permits."Today's hearing is not so much about an environmental impact study as it is about jobs," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.Raney and most other pro-coal speakers received loud applause from more than 150 people who turned out for an afternoon session at the University of Charleston Wednesday.A larger crowd was expected for an evening hearing at U.C., and 400 people turned out for a hearing Tuesday night in Summersville. Another hearing is scheduled for tonight in Logan.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is sponsoring the hearings to receive public input on a two-year environmental impact study of mountaintop removal.EPA and other regulatory agencies agreed to the study in response to a federal court lawsuit the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed to try to curb mountaintop removal.The study is intended to examine possible long-term effects of mountaintop removal, and to help regulators come up with new rules to better control the practice.Only a handful of speakers at Wednesday's hearing spoke directly about the EPA study, and only a few seemed to favor additional regulation of mountaintop removal.Norm Steenstra, lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said he hopes federal regulators "will protect us from ourselves in West Virginia.
"The political climate in West Virginia is largely controlled by the coal industry, and has been for 100 years," Steenstra said. "Don't let politics interfere with the decisions you're making in this study."Former Massey Coal executive Eugene Kitts said he thinks the EPA study is already unfair because the Highlands Conservancy is allowed to approve or disapprove consultants who will help prepare it."That makes this process neither fair, nor impartial, from the outset," said Kitts, who is now a private coal company consultant.Most speakers focused on what they said was the negative result of any permit delays.John Workman, an employee of Walker Machinery in Logan, said that additional EPA scrutiny has already hurt his county's economy.
"If the permits are held up, we're going to see a lot of people unemployed and laid off," Workman said.Julian Martin, a retired teacher from Lincoln County, said he was saddened that coal companies have turned miners and environmentalists against each other."My question is how millionaires from St. Louis and California have managed to come in here and tell us they can only [mine coal] one way and divided us like they have," Martin said. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.