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West Virginia Becomes Center of Mountaintop Mining Debate

Five years ago, several U.S. government agencies agreed to conduct a study of the damage caused by mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed to halt the practice. The study found that mountaintop removal has already buried more than 1,165 kilometers of Appalachian streams, and without new restrictions would destroy more than 3,500 square kilometers of forest. Members of the public can comment on the study's findings and recommendations through the end of August, and the study panel will accept written comments through the end of the year.

In Coal Country, there are few more emotional topics than mountaintop removal mining, a practice in which the top layers of mountains are literally scraped off to more easily reach the coal beneath. In Appalachia, a mountainous region in the east-central United States where many people live in poverty, coal mining provides some of the only well-paying jobs. But environmentalists argue that the practice is destroying the area's natural resources and chance at a better future.

So when the public hearings for the federally ordered study known as an Environmental Impact Statement were recently held in the small town of Charleston, West Virginia, local police wanted to make sure the dispute didn't escalate to violence. Thirty police cruisers surrounded the hearing site and metal detectors were placed at all doors.

Despite the fact that it was the middle of a workday afternoon, the auditorium soon held more than 300 people.

A panel of the experts who wrote the study, including representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Surface Mining, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Protection, sat on stage to listen to the public's comments. Each speaker was allowed five minutes. Coal miner Fitz Steele, who's been in the business for 20 years, was among the first to speak. "Coal business is about all we have. We have to have it to survive. We don't want to be dependent on the government to take care of us, coal miners take care of themselves. We do. We put our land back and we put it back right," he said.

Environmentalist Cindy Rank with the Highlands Conservancy, the group that filed the original suit against mountaintop removal mining, insists that she understands the miners' concerns. But she says they're telling only half the story. "It's so difficult to argue that because people treasure their homes and their lives. So do the people who aren't here today who are losing their homes because these mines are so big and moving them out of their communities. Those people aren't going to show up in the droves that the miners are because they're intimidated, they're afraid, and they are being put out of their homes. They're not getting paid to be here," she says.

While Ms. Rank's group is pleased that the federal study recognizes Mountaintop Removal damage, they feel it's a sellout to the coal companies because it proposes no new restrictions. "The studies are very good because they do show that there has been damage, there's been devastation to the forests and the streams and to the communities, but what is purposed is that the agencies are going to speak more together," she says. "That has been happening and it hasn't resulted in any on the ground improvement, we don't see this as anything but a backslide on the regulations and more of the same when it comes to having the agencies work together."

But Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, a mining company trade group, believes the federal study takes a longer view, and that it also recognizes that mine operators are working to repair the environmental damage that, he admits, is unavoidable in mining. "During the mining operation there clearly is an impact, visible as well as physical. We try to manage that, we do manage that...and in the long run what this looks at is the long-term impacts," he says. "What we're finding in the long term impacts is that the streams return to health, the streams sometimes come back in better shape from a biology standpoint than they were before the mining started. We're finding out the vegetation and reforestation is beginning to come on strong and the reclamation is catching up with all of that. Yes, do we have an impact while we're mining? Yes we do. Are we managing that impact? Yes we are. This report bears that out."

Veteran miner Fitz Steele says he believes coal companies are environmentally sound because he sees signs of it every day at work. "On our reclaimed land we have over 300 head of cattle, 20 head of horses, many different deer, we even have elk on our land, black bear, several wild turkeys, too many snakes copperheads and rattle snakes, if it's done right it's fine. Sure there are some bad apples, but all of us, we're not all bad apples," he says.

Ms. Rank counters that more animals are visible on reclaimed mine lands because the land has been cleared and their habitats no longer exist. But Mr. Raney counters that coal companies are improving the human habitat. "When you go through southern WV particularly, there's not a great deal of level land and we're able to leave a level, developable piece of property in southern West Virginia. Then I think the state, the people, the locale are that much better off, because it's an opportunity for the future and we're seeing an opportunity exercised in a number of places now," he says.

The Bush administration may agree with coal companies. Instead of taking action against known offenders, which the industry argues is too difficult to enforce, the Bush administration has proposed to streamline the review of permits for new mining operations. Agency officials say by working more closely on permit reviews, environmental protection will also improve.

However Highlands Conservancy President Frank Young isn't buying it. He says by not regulating, Appalachia's supply of clean water and timber will be destroyed in the name of false prosperity. "I request that the state and federal agencies search their minds and their bureaucratic souls for constructive ways to use the surface mine and reclamation act, restore human and other habitats destroyed through two and a half decades of non-enforcement of the act to administer mining programs to reduce and not increase the flooding, to regulate against rather than enable unnecessary destruction and to protect the people and their life support system-the living environment from soulless corporations whose god is money," he says.

Environmentalists are also concerned that the required 90-day public comment period might not be enough time to properly review the 5,000 page study, which was completed more than two years behind schedule Cindy Rank says if the federal government couldn't complete the project in their allotted time, it shouldn't ask the public to review it in such a short period. But she notes there's been time enough to be disappointed by the report's general thrust: "I think we would like to have seen specific recommendations actionwise in terms of limiting the size of the fills, which would limit the size of the operations and that would limit the impacts to everything -- the forests, the people, the communities, the water etc. And that was one of the last things we were hoping would come out of this and I don't think we see that it's going to be anything but more of the same," she says.

Suzanne Chubb, one of the panel members overseeing the government study, says the hearings aren't just a chance for the public to vent their frustrations. She say she panel plans to include ideas gained hereto help determine the outcome of the final EIS. "If they raise issues that we haven't thought of, we may need to go back and do additional studies, if they find problems with the studies that were initially done. Perhaps they need to be corrected," she says.

Panel members say they haven't set a deadline for publication of their final report. They hope their study will be used to make more environmentally-friendly mining regulations.