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Column: Ed Peeks

It looks like mountaintop removal mining has more friends than foes, despite a crackdown by regulators, lawsuits by environmentalists and protests in West Virginia and Kentucky.Students at Wallins Elementary School in Harlan County, Ky., have a project against plans to mine Black Mountain, the tallest peak in the Bluegrass State.Protesting youngsters want to save the mountains there, as many young and old want to do in West Virginia. In both states, activists fight to spare peaks, valleys and streams from the ill effects of mountaintop mining.But Arch Coal and other surface mining operators say the effects are nothing like critics make out. Arch is running a series of ads in West Virginia newspapers arguing the point of protecting the environment while mining coal and providing jobs.I'm persuaded that the job argument flies in West Virginia and Kentucky. Young protesters in Kentucky are up against their coal-mining elders, who insist that jobs and environmental protections go hand in hand.The same attitude holds for West Virginia coal miners and supporters who say coal remains vital to the state's economy. Jobs make friends for mountaintop mining.Count among them the United Mine Workers union and its president, Cecil Roberts, a native of Cabin Creek, who speaks with authority and concern in the coalfields and beyond."We make no apologies for seeking to promote the jobs available in the mining and related industries," Roberts told the task force appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood to study the problem of mountaintop mining.Like other supporters of this mining method, Roberts maintains that state and federal laws should be strictly followed, post-mining land use should be for industrial development, and homes should be protected from blasting in mining areas."We do believe the jobs provided in coal mining are worth fighting for and preserving," Roberts said. "This is particularly true in our economy in which service sector jobs are often very low-paying and without benefits."
To be sure, coal makes an impact on employment, wages, taxes and other items of West Virginia's economy, while controversy swirls around mountaintop mining and environmental issues.I refer to a new report prepared by Alan L. Mierke for the West Virginia Coal Association. Mierke, a consultant and former deputy state tax commissioner, notes that coal companies and coal-fired electric utilities pay close to 60 percent of all state business taxes.In 1996, the report says, West Virginia coal companies employed 21,296 miners directly and another 33,000 individuals worked for firms licensed to do mining contracting.Coal miners earned an average wage of $49,490, or more than double the average wage of $23,000 earned by the rest of workers in the state. Coal also created about 60,000 jobs in such industries as power generation, steelmaking and machinery manufacturing.Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said, "No other state business or industry affects so many people in so many different ways. Tax dollars generated from coal translate directly into important education, government and community services."
Nonetheless, critics say the positive impact of the coal industry on the economy is exaggerated, particularly in light of its toll on human health and community life.They call attention to a history of economic exploitation from the days of the old coal camps that spawned the song lyrics, "I owe my soul to the company store." Workers were had by mine owners, going and coming.Yet jobs were just as important then as they are now to working souls, families and friends who support mountaintop mining. 
Peeks is the Gazette's former business/labor editor.
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