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Mountaintop mining bill revises provisions in 1998 law

A mountaintop removal bill passed by the Senate 34-0 on Thursday is an effort to reach a compromise with all sides, the chairman of a Finance subcommittee that worked on the bill said."I don't think it's going to make any side completely happy," said Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall. "That's usually the sign of a good bill."The bill passed the Senate and was sent to the House of Delegates about an hour after it advanced from the Finance Committee.It repeals provisions in a controversial 1998 law that expanded the amount of streams that could be destroyed by valley fills from 250 to 480 acres before coal companies would have to mitigate the damages.It also creates two new offices within the Division of Environmental Protection:An Office of Explosives and Blasting, to conduct pre-blast surveys and to investigate claims of blasting damage. It mandates that companies must notify occupants within 0.7 mile of the blast site that they are eligible for pre-blast surveys.The bill also establishes fines for damages caused by blasting. On a third offense, the DEP would issue a cessation order that would prevent the operator from conducting additional blasting.An Office of Coalfield Community Development. In order to obtain a surface mining permit, the operator would have to develop a plan for post-mining economic development in the affected communities.Operators would also have to make a number of disclosures about the mountaintop removal project, including the amount of land to be disturbed, the time span for the project, blasting plans, and post-mining land use. "The whole concept of this bill is, we hope once you've taken, you'll leave something behind to help the economic development of the community," Kessler said.Also Thursday, the Finance Committee originated a bill that would eliminate jail penalties for first-offense driving under the influence.The intent is to control regional jail and public defender costs with alternative sentencing for the 11,000 people charged with first-offense DUI each year."First-offense DUI is costing the state of West Virginia millions and millions of dollars," Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, said.
Eliminating the jail penalty would also eliminate the requirement that those charged with first-offense DUI have access to legal representation.Jack Rogers, executive director of the state Public Defenders Service, said public defenders represent about 9,000 first-offense DUIs a year, billing the state for an average cost of $300 per case.
Action on the bill - which replaces the jail sentence with higher fines, mandatory community service, and mandatory participation in an alcohol treatment program - was postponed until today, after Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooton, D-Raleigh, objected to it.Wooton said it violated the integrity of the Senate to originate a bill in order to bypass a committee.Craigo said the committee felt it had no alternative, since Judiciary has failed to take up similar bills over the past four years."We have a serious problem here. We have a problem that needs to be addressed, and we've waited for four years to get it done," he said.In other activity Thursday, the Senate:Passed 34-0 and sent to the House a compromise bill on Public Employees Insurance Agency funding.
The bill, which advanced to the floor late Wednesday, replaced an unpopular proposal to begin increasing employee premiums, beginning next year, for five years.By 2004, PEIA premiums would have jumped more than 300 percent in most cases.While it does not preclude a 2000 premium hike, the bill does call for employers, health-care providers, and employees to work together to come up with cost-control measures.Advanced to passage state today, without debate, bills to legalize casino gambling at The Greenbrier and to reduce the discount on assessed value for managed timberland from the current 70 percent to about 20 percent. 
To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, call 348-5193.
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