First, he appointed a study task force made up mostly of coal industry lobbyists, consultants, lawyers and supporters. Then he blasted members of his own church for a call to ban mountaintop removal mines until more is known about their long-term effects. Underwood's task force is lopsided. Seven of the 16 members either work directly for the coal industry or do consulting, lobbying or legal work for coal. The panel includes Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, and Charles Jones, who owns coal-hauling barges. It includes a West Virginia University professor who often testifies for coal companies seeking permits. Three of the four legislators appointed to the task force voted for the controversial "mitigation" bill making it easier for coal companies to fill valleys with "spoil" from cut-off mountaintops. Only one environmental representative - John McFerrin, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and a Gazette contributing columnist - was named to the task force. Yet Underwood contends that the members "bring a broad range of perspective and expertise to this effort." What nonsense. This task force is a transparent exercise that undoubtedly will reach predetermined conclusions about the "decapitation" method that is making West Virginia an international example of industrial ravages. And Underwood surprisingly lashed out at his own church - United Methodism - after a group of Methodists proposed a resolution calling for a moratorium on mountaintop removal until studies can determine environmental effects (the resolution was later approved by the church's annual conference). This is a reasonable proposal (especially since the law prohibits federal and state regulators from issuing permits unless they know water quality effects, and regulators have admitted that they don't). "I think this kind of social action by the church is outside of its primary role," the governor said. He noted the decline of Methodist membership and suggested that church leaders should be more concerned about that. But churches always have been involved in social issues, on many sides. Some crusaded against slavery, some defended it. Many participated in the historic civil rights drive that ended U.S. segregation. Catholics fought for social justice in South America. The war against abortion clinics today is chiefly a fundamentalist effort, as are attempts to ban sex movies and stripper clubs. Nobody can bar churches from public disputes. In fact, Underwood himself called for more social activism by churches during his inaugural prayer service. "I view the churches' primary responsibility here and around the world as being in the attitude business," he said. "If they aren't, they ought to be." Underwood spent much of his life working for the out-of-state corporations that own West Virginia's coalfields. Apparently, he is blind to any other point of view. Mountaintop removal mines are colossal operations that dump millions of tons of rock and dirt into the valleys and streams of West Virginia. Blasting to loosen the "overburden" above the coal sends dust and rock into neighboring communities, making life miserable for the mostly poor residents who live there. West Virginians need to know the long-term impact of all this. State and federal regulators have a legal duty to figure it out. If Underwood is too loyal to coal to appoint a truly representative study committee, he shouldn't complain when his church calls for more research.
GOV. UNDERWOOD is shedding any pretense of neutrality on the mountaintop removal issue.