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This news story originally provided by The Charleston Gazette
February 19, 2005

Timmermeyer touts faster mine permitting

By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff writer

Coal companies are getting new strip mining permits faster and will continue to see the regulatory process streamlined under the Manchin administration, Environmental Protection Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer told industry officials Friday.

When Timmermeyer took office in January 2003, industry officials were furious over a backlog of 60 permit applications that had been under review for more than two years.

Today, that backlog has been mostly eliminated.

Now, Timmermeyer has assigned a team to speed up approval of water pollution permits to new and expanding coal mines.

At one point last year, the number of pending applications for water pollution permits for mining exceeded 900, Timmermeyer said.

It just got to be an out-of-control situation, Timmermeyer said Friday during a speech to the 32nd annual West Virginia Mining Symposium, sponsored by the West Virginia Coal Association.

Last year, the number of mining permits issued dropped from 88 to 61, according to DEP data cited by Timmermeyer.

During calendar year 2004, the acreage covered by new permits also dropped to 13,000 from 22,000 acres on permits issued in calendar year 2003.

At the same time, the expected tonnage to be mined during the lifetime of permits issued in 2004 was 153 million tons. Thats compared to 120 million tons on permits issued in 2003.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the Coal Association, said the association has been much happier with the agency since Timmermeyer fired Matthew B. Crum as its mining director in August 2003.

Crum had led an effort to crack down on blackwater spills at Massey Energy operations, and pushed for tougher permit rules to limit minings contribution to flooding.

Timmermeyer has refused to explain why she removed Crum. Longtime DEP inspector and supervisor Joe Parker is currently the DEPs mining director.

In her speech, Timmermeyer did not mention any statistics on how much strip-mined land is being reclaimed in West Virginia.

In its most recent annual report, the federal Office of Surface Mining found that mining companies in West Virginia continue to strip mine more acres than they reclaim.

During the 12-month period covered by the OSM report, companies obtained new permits for about 21,000 acres of land. During the same period, they fully reclaimed only 4,000 acres, the OSM reported.

Timmermeyer told coal representatives that she is eager to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a new, streamlined permit process approved by the Bush administration.

Under the plan, state mining regulators and the corps can set up a procedure for companies to obtain Clean Water Act and strip mining permits through a combined permit application. Currently, the permits must be obtained separately.

At first blush, it sounds like a great thing, Timmermeyer said.

Bob McLusky, a coal industry lawyer, said in his own speech that a ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin would slow down the issuance of new mining permits.

McLusky said that the July 2004 ruling could force coal companies to undergo detailed environmental impact studies for all new mining proposals.

That can lead to a slow, bureaucratic death, McLusky said.

Earlier this week, another coal industry lawyer told a group of land and mineral companies that lawsuits over mountaintop removal have been good for the state.

Terry Sammons, a Mingo County coal lawyer, said the lawsuits have forced companies and regulators to improve their permits and the way they mine and reclaim.

In particular, Sammons said, lawsuits have forced some companies to begin to plan post-mining economic development on their mine sites.

People will throw rocks at me, but, quite frankly, litigation has created a lot of good things, and can create a lot of better things in the future, Sammons told the annual meeting of the West Virginia Land and Mineral Owners Council on Monday.

Too many empty promises have been made in the past, he added. It has to be better than it was before.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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