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MINING FOES SHOUTED DOWN PUBLIC HEARING ON REVIEWS TURNS RAUCUS


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Page: 1A
Byline: KEN WARD JR. STAFF WRITER

INSIDE:
Sierra Club
defends mining limits
3A



Coal industry supporters turned out in force Tuesday evening to loudly oppose part of the Obama administration's plan to more strictly regulate mountaintop removal coal mining.


Miners, industry officials and other coal supporters demanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers abandon its proposal to stop using a streamlined review process to approve strip-mining valley fills that bury streams.


"My job pays a good wage and good benefits for my family," coal miner Sonny Adkins said to a standing ovation from the crowd. "That's who I'm speaking for."


Environmental activists and coalfield residents, who have fought for more than a decade against mountaintop removal, turned out in far smaller numbers to praise the Obama plan as a necessary step toward greatly reducing or eliminating the practice.


But hundreds of coal supporters repeatedly jeered and shouted down mountaintop-removal opponents, drowning out most of the speakers who showed up to support the plan.


Corps District Engineer Col. Robert Peterson, dressed in camouflage alongside agency staffers in business attire, gently waved his hands and politely asked coal supporters to behave themselves. But Peterson refused several requests that the corps ask local police or security to remove the offenders.


"This hearing tonight is not being conducted in a fair manner," said Daniel Chiotos, an activist with the West Virginia Environmental Council. "Those cheers are the cheers of a mob, and a mob is not the way democracy works."


The crowd overflowed a 740-seat auditorium at the Charleston Civic Center for the public hearing. More coal supporters rallied outside, waving signs and cheering as coal trucks circled the downtown Charleston block and honked their horns.


Charleston's hearing was one of six such events the corps planned across Appalachia this week. Other hearings were held Tuesday night in Pikeville, Ky., and Knoxville, Tenn. Hearings are planned Thursday in Pittsburgh; Cambridge, Ohio; and Big Stone Gap, Va.


The hearings were to focus on the narrow proposal by the corps, but both coal industry supporters and mountaintop-removal opponents sought to use the events to make their broader points about the future of strip mining in Appalachia.


Roger Nicholson, general counsel of International Coal Group, said the Obama administration has enacted a "de facto moratorium" on new permits that is "strangling the Appalachian coal industry."


Coal miners who spoke at the hearing said they feared changes in the corps' permit process would slow down or block access to new coal reserves, shutting down their operations and throwing them out of work in the midst of a recession in a region where good-paying jobs are hard to come by.


"Mountaintop companies have been good stewards of our land, and provided affordable energy for our economy," said Lee Price, who works for Massey Energy subsidiary Republic Energy.


Joining the coal industry in speaking out against the Obama proposal was United Mine Workers general counsel Grant Crandall, who said eliminating the streamlined reviews would further bog down a permit process already backlogged by the administration's closer examination of mining proposals.


"The current system for reviewing permits is simply not working," Crandall said.


In June, the corps proposed to stop using a "general permit" - called Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21 - for strip mining operations in Appalachia. The proposal was part of a broader initiative Obama administration officials said would involve taking "unprecedented steps" to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.


Under the Clean Water Act, nationwide or "general" permits are supposed to be used to authorize "minor activities that are usually not controversial" and that would have only "minimal cumulative adverse effects on the environment."


Using this streamlined review process, the corps issued a permit with a standard set of environmental guidelines. Mining operations are then authorized under this permit if companies submit a general pledge to follow those guidelines.


For years, the corps approved valley fills - burying hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams - with the streamlined permit reviews.


In 2004, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin blocked the corps from using the streamlined permitting process in Southern West Virginia.


A federal appeals court overturned Goodwin, but in the meantime the coal industry mostly shifted to applying for "individual permits" that involve a more thorough review. In late March, Goodwin issued another decision that blocked the corps from using NWP 21 in West Virginia's southern coalfields.


In announcing its proposal, the corps noted the growth in the size and impacts of strip mines in Appalachian since NWP 21 was first issued in 1982.


Mountaintop removal has resulted in "adverse environmental impacts that may be more than minimal on a cumulative basis," the corps said.


Bill Price, a Sierra Club staffer, told the corps it should be obvious that large-scale strip mines don't fit into the definition of what's covered by nationwide permits.


"Look at impacts of mountaintop removal, and you will say that they are, in fact, significant," Price said. "This is about nationwide permits that are intended for insignificant activities."


Coalfield resident and activist Maria Gunnoe noted that the corps' streamlined permit process does not allow citizens time to comment on mining projects before they are approved and the damage done.


"It takes the people out of the process," Gunnoe said.


Prior to Tuesday night's hearings, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., issued a statement noting that the Clean Water Act allows the corps to use streamlined permitting reviews for activities that result in "minimal adverse environmental effects."


"In the event that standard is strictly adhered to, we see no reason why the Corps of Engineers should eliminate the use of this permit for any and all situations involving coal in the Appalachian region," Rahall said through a spokesman.


One of the many supporters of the coal industry makes his feelings known at a public hearing Tuesday night at the Charleston Civic Center.


Chris Dorst
Gazette photo

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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