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Column: Dan Radmacher

HOUSE SPEAKER Bob Kiss has finally come to the realization that the mitigation bill passed by the Legislature last season may have gone too far.The bill nearly doubled the number of acres that coal companies can fill with spoil from mountaintop removal mines without compensating the state for the loss of the buried streams.The bill, along with national media attention and a Gazette series by reporter Ken Ward Jr., helped focus more attention on the issue of mountaintop removal than coal companies bargained for.Environmental groups sued state and federal regulators, alleging that the permits for mountaintop removal mines and valley fills are illegal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is blocking two permits for huge mines, partly over concerns about the long-term effects of the valley fills the bill made easier and cheaper.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a moratorium on approval of permits for valley fills, and has since extended it.The U.S. Office of Surface Mining is taking a closer look at whether the state's definition of "approximate original contour" meets the constraints of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).Other factors led to many of these developments, but some could argue that passage of the mitigation bill helped galvanize opposition to mountaintop removal by demonstrating just how deeply the governor and the Legislature were nestled in King Coal's pockets."I believe you are going to see that legislation revisited in the next few years," Kiss said at a candidate meeting earlier this week.As if that would put the genie back in the bottle. Speaker Kiss, D-Raleigh, didn't tell voters at the meeting that he was largely responsible for passage of the bill. He strong-armed it through the House, using his position to intimidate delegates who questioned whether it was wise to encourage more and larger valley fills.In the final days of the session, he called committee chairs into his office and threatened them with the loss of their leadership positions if they didn't vote to suspend rules to allow the House to vote on the controversial bill. He promised to work against some delegates in the next election if they didn't vote his way.He ignored requests to invite EPA representatives in to explain that agency's opposition to the bill. He ignored opposition even by the industry-minded director of the Division of Environmental Protection.Kiss made passage of this bill a personal mission. But he not only wanted the bill to pass, he wanted to squelch the kind of vocal opposition that flared up around last year's chemical plant self-audit secrecy bill - which passed the House over loud protest moments before the end of the session, but died in the Senate.The mitigation bill would not have become law if not for Bob Kiss.
 Arch Coal continues to run full-page ads touting the supposed benefits of "mountaintop mining" and insisting that "mountaintop mining is the only economical way to produce much of Southern West Virginia's valuable low-sulfur coal."Really? Arch Coal Inc. reported earnings of $29.9 million for the first three quarters of 1998. Arch Coal sold 25.9 million tons of coal in the third quarter, more than double what it sold last year.In its next full-page ad, I wish Arch Coal would tell us what it would earn if mountaintop removal mining were limited to the scope envisioned in SMCRA, and if valley fills weren't allowed to bury miles and miles of streams in blatant violation of the federal Clean Water Act.How much money is Arch Coal making by sacrificing West Virginia's environment? The costs of mountaintop removal are readily apparent: scalped mountains, communities like Blair turned into virtual ghost towns, homeowners forced to sell their heritage, hundreds of miles of buried streams.These costs are shared by all West Virginians. But the profits flow to a privileged few. Arch Coal should at least give West Virginians the courtesy of telling us what proportion of the firm's tens of millions of dollars in profits derive from the rape of our mountains and the destruction of our streams.
  Norm Steenstra, head of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, first pointed out the gutless nature of Senate Democrats who decided to "vote for an illegal appointment by a Republican governor."Only two senators voted against the confirmation of Michael Miano, the illegally appointed director of the state Division of Environmental Protection.If Democrats are willing to collude with a Republican governor to put an industry hack in charge of enforcing environmental regulations, why even bother having a Democratic Party? The senators who voted for this confirmation should be honest with their constituents and change their party affiliation. 
Radmacher is the Gazette's editorial page editor. He can be reached at 348-5150, or by e-mail at
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