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Editorial: Cecil Roberts

CECIL Roberts knows the economic stakes in the current controversy over mountaintop-removal mining. A growing number of his members depend on that form of mining for their livelihood.

But that doesn't mean the president of the United Mine Workers of America thinks coal companies should be given carte blanche to rape mountains and destroy communities.

In a reasoned statement to Gov. Underwood's task force on mountaintop-removal mining (printed as a commentary in Monday's Gazette), Roberts stressed the importance both of coal jobs and of protecting the environment for future generations.

"Unfortunately, the debate has often been between two extreme positions - one calling for the abolition of coal mining and the other decrying any type of restrictions on mining companies as they damage people's houses and degrade local streams. We do not agree with either of these extreme views," Roberts wrote.

Roberts called for strong regulation of the coal industry, including better protection for residents from blast effects of mountaintop-removal mining.

He recommended passage of a law that would presume any damage to water supplies within 1,000 feet of blasting is caused by the blasting, and that any damage to property within a mile of blasting is assumed to be caused by the blast unless the coal company can prove it was not.

Roberts also criticized the post-mining use designation of "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" for decapitation mines that receive variances from the requirement to return the land to its approximate original contour. Such a use is not approved under federal law, and Roberts said he doesn't think it's actually a higher use.

In addition, Roberts called for the repeal of last session's controversial West Virginia mitigation bill, which made it cheaper and easier for coal companies to bury streams under "spoil" from decapitation mining.

The UMW wants the state to take the lead in studying the long-term effects of mountaintop removal, and the protection of sites with historic significance, such as the Blair Mountain battleground.

Roberts ended his statement: "This union has a proud history of working not only in the interests of its own members, but on behalf of all working people and the communities they live in. We fully intend to uphold that tradition."

Magnificent. It is unfortunate that the coal industry cannot be as understanding, reasonable, accommodating and caring as its hard-working employees and their union.

We understand the importance of mining to West Virginia's economy, although we think the industry overstates its contributions (if coal is so good for local economies, why do counties with the highest production often have the worst unemployment and poverty?).

We also understand why operators want to mine coal as cheaply as possible. But they should not be allowed to pass their costs on to the local communities.

As historian John Alexander Williams wrote, "In terms of short-run market considerations, strip-mining is the swiftest and cheapest way to expand coal production at a time when demand is high. Stripping is the most costly method of producing coal, however, if social and environmental factors are calculated."

It is time to calculate those factors, and present coal with the bill.


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