Beckley Register Herald - January 12, 2010

CHARLESTON — A southern West Virginia lawmaker feels the ultimate goal of the Environmental Protection Agency is to wipe out the entire coal industry by initially outlawing the mountaintop removal practice via uncompromising regulation.

“It’s an attack on the whole industry,” Delegate Steve Kominar, D-Mingo, said in Monday’s interims session.

His criticism of the federal agency came after lawmakers heard updates on improving brownfields in a meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Development.

Kominar and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, zeroed in on the EPA’s insistence that mined-out mountains be restored to natural contours, with mountains even higher than the natural ones before coal was extracted, rather than be used to develop schools, golf courses, hospitals and the like, as has been accomplished at old mine sites.

“Fifty years from now, we’ll look back and say that (original contour restoration) was the worst thing we ever did in southern West Virginia,” Stollings told the commission.

Afterward, Kominar went further, portraying the EPA and environmentalists alike as forces with closed minds, refusing to look at the facts, in their resolve to outlaw coal production.

“First of all, they don’t want mountaintop removal — period,” Kominar, D-Mingo, said.

“What people don’t understand, if they’re successful — and I’m talking about a conglomerate of people — in stopping mountaintop removal, the next thing they’ll stop is traditional strip mining. And the third thing will be our underground mines.”

If the mining industry is in error, point it out, Kominar challenged.

“Let’s not base this on emotions,” the delegate said.

“Let’s base this on scientific facts. If we’re doing something wrong in the mining industry, give us the opportunity to correct it. But they can’t show us those numbers or those figures. It’s a Catch-22.”

A brownfield is an old site of a gasoline station, chemical plant or other erstwhile industrial activity that raises environmental issues.

Appearing before the panel were George Carico and Patrick Kirby, directors of the Southern and Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, respectively, based at West Virginia and Marshall universities.

Each center has functioned since 2005 and works with local governments to help them turn used sites into viable new entities. In its brief history, the program has leveraged $4 million from the EPA for such assistance, but actually has amassed a budget that is $2 million larger with various grants.

Illustrating how the center works, Carico told of efforts to help the Fayette County town of Ansted find use for the old Ansted High School.

The town needs a central location to house town offices, since they now are scattered about, but there also exist needs for a community center to hold weddings and other family outings, and a location for a small business, Carico said.

As for the latter, he noted, one man is interested in leasing a classroom to run an Internet-based business.

Kirby explained that grants given by the Benedum Foundation come into play, typically $5,000 outlays to help communities get some mileage out of an old gasoline station or industrial complex.

“I know $5,000 doesn’t sound like much, but that puts a lot of momentum for a project,” Kirby said.

Carico said the centers have made some measured progress in the five years they have worked in the local communities.

“West Virginia is way behind when it comes to brownfields cleanup,” he told the commission.

“But we’re catching up.”