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Column: Cecil Roberts

SINCE several reports have appeared in the media over the last several weeks that incompletely or inaccurately indicate the position of the United Mine Workers of America with regard to mountaintop removal mining, I believe it would be helpful for me to briefly outline our position.

The UMWA believes that strong protection for our environment is essential. As we have pointed out many times, our membership lives in the communities in which mining takes place and believes strongly that we have a duty to future generations to protect that environment.

At the same time, we make no apologies for seeking to promote the jobs available in mining and related industries. After all, these jobs average more than $50,000 per year plus benefits including retiree health care and pensions. West Virginia is already 49th in per capita income. We surely do not want to drive ourselves into an even more negative position.

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 peoples' houses and degrade local streams. We do not agree with either of these extreme views.

Some critics have suggested that the UMWA is only interested in the protection of our members' jobs when they work on mountaintop removal sites. Make no mistake, that is important to us.

As this statement of policy makes clear, however, we believe that this criticism is unfounded since we also believe in strong environmental and community protections. We do believe that jobs provided in coal mining are worth fighting for and preserving. This is particularly true in our economy, in which service sector jobs are often very low paying and without benefits. We are proud of our support for such jobs.

At the same time, we support strong regulatory efforts to protect the water resources of our communities, and we also believe that families living in these communities should be protected against blasting debris and the degradation of their communities.

We believe that coal companies should be held to a high standard of environmental protection and that the state and federal officials entrusted with that enforcement have on many occasions not sufficiently protected our communities.

In this regard, we support the comprehensive study of the long-term effects of mountaintop removal mining recently suggested by EPA officials, with West Virginia taking the lead in such a study and the consequent lifting of the ban on permitting.

The UMWA strongly believes that coal companies should not be permitted to destroy local communities in the process of mountaintop removal mining, including by blasting. Community residents with homes and farms should be protected from the consequences of such damage. Under current law, a homeowner can pursue a damage claim in circuit court. The practical problem is the cost of hiring attorneys and the litigation costs in hiring expert witnesses.

The UMWA believes that there should be additional legal protections to ensure that blasting damage can be easily and completely compensated by coal companies.

We suggest a statutory change so that blasting law would be made similar to a provision in state oil and gas law. Under the law, any damage to water supplies caused within 1,000 feet of a gas well is presumed to result from the drilling and operation of the gas well.

We likewise suggest that with regard to any property within 1-mile radius of a blast, there should be a rebuttable presumption that the blast caused any property damage. This provision, coupled with the present law that a community member may require the company to do a pre-blasting survey, should make the payment of appropriate damages far more practical.

This should lead, as it does in the oil and gas area, to the quick resolution of claims and a more fair protection of community rights.

We further believe that companies should engage in such mining in a responsible manner and must be held to the duty to do so. We are supportive of federal regulations which require the return of overburden to its approximate original contour (AOC).

Many coal companies in West Virginia in applications for variances from AOC have cited as their basis for a plan of post-mining development "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands." The UMWA notes that there is no such post-mining provision in federal law. We believe that federal law should be strictly enforced and that post-mining development plans should not include simply "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands."

We also support the repeal of Senate Bill 145. As has been shown in the debate leading up to the passage of the recent mitigation bill, some companies in the industry, such as Arch Coal, are willing to be more cooperative than others with efforts to see that such mining is practiced in a responsible manner.

Moreover, it is our understanding that the overwhelming majority of mountains in the state of West Virginia are unsuitable for mountaintop removal mining techniques. We also believe that the many sites throughout West Virginia with historical significance, such as the historic portions of Blair Mountain and the Stanley family farm on Kayford Mountain, must be preserved and thus should be off-limits for mining.

As was recently reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, the coal industry remains "a mainstay of the Mountain State economy." Coal and coal-burning utilities account for nearly 60 percent of the state's business tax revenue, and state business taxes paid by coal companies rose more than 35 percent between 1985 and 1996, at a time when the price of a ton of West Virginia coal dropped by 26 percent.

West Virginia coal companies employ more than 21,000 miners directly, and using economic multipliers employed by the federal government, the industry accounts for more than 60,000 additional jobs.

In much of southern West Virginia and in portions of northern West Virginia, the impact is particularly pronounced. In Boone County, for example, 42 percent of the work force is directly employed in the coal industry. In the coal counties of this state, over 10 percent of all jobs are directly linked to coal mining.

Thus, it is not only in the interests of our membership, but in the broader interests of the citizenry of this state that these issues be resolved in an equitable and timely manner. 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.

 

Roberts is president of the United Mine Workers of America.

 


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