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Originally published Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:30 AM

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Raucous pro-coal crowds pack mining hearings

Thousands of coal miners fearing the loss of jobs if mountaintop removal mining is curtailed or outlawed shouted down a handful of environmentalists at crowded public hearings Tuesday on the much-debated practice.

Associated Press Writers


Thousands of coal miners fearing the loss of jobs if mountaintop removal mining is curtailed or outlawed shouted down a handful of environmentalists at crowded public hearings Tuesday on the much-debated practice.

Many in Kentucky and West Virginia wore hardhats and T-shirts and waved signs proclaiming the merits of coal. Environmentalists who have fought for decades to end the destructive form of mining that blasts away peaks to unearth coal showed up in small numbers.

Mining supporters in West Virginia heckled the few environmentalists who testified in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to eliminate or at least suspend a streamlined permitting process for surface mines in six Appalachian states. Hearings were also being held in Tennessee and are set for later this week in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

If the corps continues with the streamlined permitting process, it is participating in genocide, mining opponent Maria Gunnoe said over shouts.

"My concern here is that the people in the state of West Virginia are being sacrificed. This industry is sacrificing people," she said.

Robert Russo complained that surface mining has polluted his water with heavy metals and caused other damage.

"I'm concerned for the future of West Virginia. I'm concerned for the future of Appalachia," he said. "We need to look at each permit to fill in valleys and bury streams individually."

Some opponents left the meeting in Charleston, rather than try to fight the uproar.

"Since clearly the people running this operation are happy with one side being silent, I will not attempt," said Mary Wildfire, a surface mining opponent who decided to leave.

In Kentucky, David Fields, a retired computer science professor from Richmond, said mountaintop removal is fouling streams and destroying the beauty of the Appalachians. "All of that is going to go by very quickly if something isn't done," he said. "It doesn't take many years to completely undo what Mother Nature has provided us."

At issue in the public hearings is the regulatory process that coal companies follow to obtain permits to dump rock, soil and debris from the mountaintops into nearby valleys.

Mine operators insist the practice should continue because it supports thousands of jobs and provides inexpensive energy for a broad swath of the eastern U.S.


Most of what the corps said was a turnout of 4,800 in Pikeville and Charleston, however, showed their disapproval for a move by the administration of President Barack Obama to curb mountaintop mining. In Kentucky, pro-mining banners flapped in the breeze outside. One proclaimed: "Coal Feeds My Family." Another: "Got Electricity? Thank a miner."

Miners and their families were trying to convince the administration to back away from restrictions that would make it more difficult, perhaps impossible, to get the federal permits necessary to blast away mountains.

Miner Junie Halcomb's T-shirt asked one question about coal: "Can Obama's America Survive Without It?" Halcomb thinks he answer is no, at least in the impoverished coal mining region of central Appalachia.

"It's going to put a lot of people out work," Halcomb said. "We can't survive without coal money."

Feelings ran much the same in West Virginia.

"Leave our mining to us and our livelihood. You will kill our state," said Diann Kish, who called herself the wife, mother and daughter of coal miners.

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who is from a mining region, was against the proposals to limit the practice. He said in eastern Kentucky, mountaintop removal sites are now shopping malls, hospitals and industrial parks.

"Let's not call it mountaintop removal, let's call it what it is, mountaintop development."

Truman Chafin, the Democratic majority leader in the West Virginia Senate, kicked off the raucous atmosphere.

"The lord didn't create very many things without a purpose, but mosquitoes and the EPA come close I think," Chafin said to huge applause. "What happens to the coal and the entire nation? Who keeps these lights on for the country if you take away 40 percent of the coal that's mined in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky?"

Mountaintop mines in the states where the practice is most used - West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee - produce approximately 130 million tons of coal each year and employ about 14,000 people.


Associated Press writer Tim Huber reported from West Virginia.

(This version CORRECTS UPDATES crowd estimates. corrects spelling Diann Kish sted Diane. Moving on general news and financial services.)

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