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Column: Cecil H. Underwood

DURING THE PAST FEW months, mountaintop mining in West Virginia has attracted much attention from national media and citizens in many parts of the state. My administration's policy and involvement in the mountaintop removal issue have been grossly mischaracterized. Let me set the record straight.

The Underwood administration did not begin the practice of mountaintop removal. The procedure was defined by the federal Surface Mining Act of 1977. In West Virginia, the first permits for such mining operations date back to the mid-1970s, and much of the expansion of the practice occurred in the decade before I took office.

The media attention this mining technique has received in the past few months might lead you to believe that mountaintop removal is a new phenomenon in West Virginia. As the facts demonstrate, that simply is not the case; it has been happening for two decades.

Much of the media and public attention focused on a bill the West Virginia Legislature passed this year and I signed. That bill did not create the practice of mountaintop removal. It merely codified practices in existence for more than two decades and established a reclamation fee scale so the Division of Environmental Protection could collect fees by statute from coal companies that alter the landscape.

The legislation also modified regulations of the practice to generally conform to laws and fee schedules applied in the state of Kentucky. If the federal government and our state legally allow this mining practice, I do not believe that West Virginia miners should be placed at a competitive disadvantage with miners in other states.

Curiously, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who have questioned West Virginia's new law, have remained comparatively silent about Kentucky's bill, after which ours is patterned.

We are left to wonder why the U.S. Constitution's mandate of equal protection under the law has not been applied and can only speculate about the reason for the difference in treatment from EPA.

Let me clear another misconception: I did not ask that the legislation be introduced, and my administration did not lobby for its passage. This bill was introduced by members of the Legislature, and, after several years of debating the issue, the Legislature passed the bill by a large margin.

As governor, I do not have the power to change portions of a bill to make it better. Instead, my authority is limited to signing or vetoing bills as they are passed by the Legislature. In this case, I chose to sign the bill for five key reasons:

The Legislature spoke decisively in favor of it: 72-26 in the House and 31-3 in the Senate.

I knew that the bill was important to working families, small businesses and communities where coal is mined, and to many citizens who rely on coal mining for economic sustenance and prosperity. Some argue that the coal era in West Virginia is fading away, and we simply should stop mining it.

But that conclusion fails to consider the people who depend on coal mining for their livelihood, citizens whose communities and property values would evaporate if the coal industry leaves our state, and small businesses that would be forced to close if coal mining were to cease. While coal may not have the same economic prominence it had 40 years ago, it is still vital to communities, especially in southern West Virginia.

West Virginia coal must compete on a global basis. Between 5 million and 7 million tons of coal are imported into the United States every year - mostly from South America into southern states - despite the availability of domestic coal from West Virginia. Users of this imported coal say it is cheaper to produce and transport than coal from our region. Our miners and companies must remain competitive with these international sources of coal.

That influx, plus the abundance of coal now being produced from western states, requires that West Virginia coal be as competitively priced as possible, if we hope to retain mining jobs for our citizens.

Despite the fact that mountaintop removal has been used for decades, no scientific analysis has been made of the environmental impact of accompanying valley fills and stream mitigation practices. The legislation mandated a study of those issues for the first time.

Beyond the impact of stream mitigation outlined in the bill, this mining practice has other impacts on our citizens, our communities and our economy.

Because of my deep concern for the environment and the state's economy, I formed the Task Force on Mountaintop Mining Practices to study all aspects of this issue, the way it is used, and the way it is regulated in West Virginia. I have asked that the task force, which includes people with a wide range of opinions, experience and expertise, report back to me by Dec. 1, before the start of the next legislative session.

During the first meeting of the task force, I told its members that I was seeking their expertise - not their rubber stamp on any particular position. Because I want them to examine these issues carefully, thoroughly and independently, I have sought to avoid commenting on the issue so as not to influence their examination in any way.

This is a controversial issue often oversimplified by advocates on both sides of the debate. I want the task force to conduct a thorough, fact-based, independent examination of all the issues related to the effect of this procedure on the environment, our quality of life and the region's economy.

I have avoided public debate on this issue because I do not want to influence in any way the work of the task force or its findings. I will support the findings of the task force and work with the Legislature to implement its recommendations.

I hope this summary about this controversial issue has served to explain my actual position on this issue and to clarify the misconceptions about it that you may have heard or read.

Gov. Underwood issued this position paper while declining an invitation to debate mountaintop removal at the Pinch Reunion.


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