INITIAL reports from the task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood to study mountaintop removal are surprisingly critical of this type of mining.The task force was largely written off at the start by environmental critics (including the Gazette) because of the large number of members strongly tied to the coal industry. At least seven of the 16 members either work directly for the industry or do consulting, lobbying or legal work for it.The head of the committee, Marshall University President J. Wade Gilley, answers to the University Board of Trustees. Arch Coal Inc. Vice President David Todd sits on that board.Only one member of an environmental group, Gazette contributing columnist John McFerrin, was appointed to the task force.
It's easy to see why many assumed the committee would be a whitewash (we called it a "transparent exercise"). However, promising draft reports from three subcommittees assigned to study the impact of mountaintop removal mining on the environment, the economy and communities raise hopes that the effort could lead to real reforms.Committee members clearly recognized that lax regulation of mountaintop removal over the past two decades has hurt citizens and the environment. They make some good recommendations, and some troublesome ones.Among the good:The establishment of a new agency within the state Division of Environmental Protection to assess and monitor the community impacts of mountaintop removal. This committee would also oversee a "mitigation" process that would compensate homeowners and communities for damage caused by mining and blasting.Elimination of the "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation" designation for post-mining land use. This designation is not approved by federal regulations, nor does it meet criteria in federal law for improving land flattened by mining.Crafting of new permitting criteria to ensure that coal companies are held to the federal requirement that mandates in-hand plans, financing and demonstration of need for development to follow mountaintop removal mining.The repeal of last session's disastrous "mitigation bill," which made it easier and cheaper for coal companies to fill in large valleys without paying the state for the loss of water quality.The most troublesome recommendation was to supplant the "fish and wildlife habitat" designation with "commercial forestry." We've seen little evidence that reclaimed land can sustain forest, though we certainly hope it's possible.More to the point, federal law requires flattening the land to be "essential" for post-mining land uses. As outgoing Division of Forestry Director Bill Maxey pointed out recently, asserting that timber companies need flat land to harvest trees is laughable.So far, officials at the federal Office of Surface Mining have refused to revisit the state's commercial forestland designation, even though they privately admit it never should have been allowed."Fish and wildlife" habitat was a ploy that allowed mining companies to decapitate mountains without following up with improvements mandated by federal law. Commercial forestland designations could have the exact same result.
Overall, though, the draft reports are promising. They show a balanced examination of the issue that recognizes both the economic benefits and sometimes terrible costs to individuals and communities.More importantly, the reports show a forward-looking vision that asks what will happen after the coal is gone? Mountaintop removal accelerates the extraction of coal tremendously, making that question all the more pressing.