Colonel Keith Landry with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) said this meeting was one in a series of hearings held to gather input from the public about Nation Wide Permit (NWP) 21. The Corps has proposed to prohibit surface mining, or mountain top removal (MTR) in seven states in the region, including Kentucky and West Virginia.
In a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the COE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the COE stated The mountains of Appalachia possess unique biological diversity, forests, and freshwater streams that historically have sustained rich and vibrant American communities. The agency went on to say that while the region's coal has been used for generations to provide energy for the nation, those reserves have been depleted to the point that the remaining coal seams are less accessible to non-surface mining methods. According to the MOU, surface mining often stresses the natural environment and impacts the health and welfare of surrounding human communities.
The Corps, along with the EPA and the Department of the Interior, wants to protect the environment with a proposed plan designed to significantly reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law.
The plan includes the suspension and/or modification of the NWP 21. Modification of the permit would mean surface mining would be processed as individual permits. This would provide the COE with more information for making decisions on those permits, and would lengthen the amount of time it takes to obtain a permit, which coal mining proponents say is already a long, arduous and costly process. Suspension could be enacted to provide immediate environmental protection while NWP 21 is being debated.
Several elected officials spoke in Pikeville in support of the mining industry and MTR. This process creates level property that is often used for development. The land at these sites is usually brought to construction grade by the coal company who mined the property, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars while creating much needed space for facilities such as the Expo Center, where the hearing was held.
Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiarno is a surgeon who works at a hospital built on just such a site. He said the process should not be called Mountain Top Removal, but rather Mountain Top Development.
I work in a hospital built on a mountain top development, I have flown into airports on mountain top developments, Mongiarno said.
The Lt. Governor, an eastern Kentucky native whose grandfather immigrated to America in 1910 to work in a Harlan County coal mine, likened a surface mining operation to the surgeries he performs.
People look at pictures of a strip mine, and they see a terrible mess. Well, if you come into my operating room, you will also see a terrible mess, Mongiarno told a cheering crowd. But, if you will wait for a little while, what you will see is a small scar. When done right, that is what surface mining leaves a small scar.
Kentucky Senator Ray Jones said he is the grandson of two union coal miners, and he was embarrassed, as a Democrat, to have to defend the working men and women of eastern Kentucky.
If NWP 21 is suspended, 6,500 will be out of work, where will they go? he asked.
My children will go to school in Pike County, I don't want them to have to learn to speak Chinese, he added, referring to the loss of mining jobs to China. That is what will happen if you listen to this left-wing liberals. Before you tell people what they can do with their own property, the Corps should clean up Fishtrap Lake, Jones said.
State Representative Keith Hall, owner of Benetech Mining Materials, said he is a third generation coal miner, and is already feeling the effects of the delay in the permitting process.
There is already a year delay in getting a permit, Hall said. That means the loss of 3,000 mining jobs, but we have not asked for a bail out, we have not asked for stimulus money. You want to hear the voice of Democracy, well, here we are, the majority rules. We use due process, we get permission from property owners. We have a system in place, and it ain't broke, so don't fix it. We just want to be left alone to live.
Pike County Judge Executive Wayne T. Rutherford echoed the sentiment stressed by other speakers when he addressed another issue American dependence on foreign oil.
In Kentucky, we get 95 percent of our electricity from coal, Rutherford said. We want to lead the way to energy independence, not to continue to be dependent on foreign countries. The government needs to understand, not to infringe upon these working people, these people are the salt of the earth.
A mostly silent minority, the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) attended the hearing, and amid shouts and calls of go home tree huggers stated their case for environmentally sound mining practices.
KFTC strongly supports the proposal to strengthen the permit process for coal mining valley fills so our water resurces will receive the protection they need, Doug Doerrfeld with the KFTC said. These proposals are the right thing to do.
Mary Love also spoke on behalf of the organization.
We do not want to stop coal mining, she said. We just want it done responsibly.
In addition to the hearing at Pikeville, meetings were held in Charleston and Knoxville, Tennessee Tuesday, with additional hearings scheduled for Oct. 15 in Pittsburgh, Cambridge, Ohio and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Written comments can be submitted at www.regulations.gov, to docket number COE-2009-0032, or mailed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: CECW-Co (Desiree Hann), 441 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20314-1000. The deadline for submitting comments is Oct. 26.