By Joanna Moreno and Rebecca León
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A bill that supporters said would save the environment but opponents said would cost coal industry jobs is dead for this legislative session.
The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee declined to meet this week to act on Senate Bill 564, which would prohibit coal surface mining operations that dispose of slurry or other waste materials in any stream.
Tuesday was the deadline for a bill to win approval from either the House or Senate and stay alive for the session. As a result, the General Assembly’s staff, the Legislative Information Service, on Tuesday listed SB 564 as having failed.
Last week, the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill, which was sponsored by the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Patricia Ticer, D-Alexandria. Ticer said her bill would curb “mountaintop removal” mining operations and reduce water pollution.
Environmentalists supported SB 564, which Ticer calls the “stream saver bill.” But coal miners and industry officials came out in force against the measure for Thursday’s hearing.
“Do not be confused: This bill has nothing to do with saving streams. It was intended to put the coal industry out of business,” said Thomas Hudson of the Virginia Coal Association.
Many of the bill’s opponents wore matching black T-shirts with “Just Say No to 564” on the front and “Yes Coal, Yes Jobs” on the back. So many people attended the hearing that most had to listen to the proceedings from another room.
[Here is a slideshow about the issue by CNS reporter Kelsey Radcliffe.]
Delegate James “Will” Morefield, R-North Tazewell, spoke at the hearing in defense of the coal industry. He said he recognized the importance of protecting the environment but added that the economy and jobs are critical, too.
“We’ve got to realize that this is a jobs bill,” Morefield said. “And this has the potential to kill jobs in Southwest Virginia.”
Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, was even more urgent.
“This would bring economic devastation – absolute and total devastation – to this corner of the commonwealth,” Wampler said.
However, other speakers touted the bill’s environmental benefits.
“We’re not advocating the eradication of coal or coal jobs. We’re saying, ‘Stop poisoning our water and destroying our communities and homes,’ ” said Larry Bush, a Wise County resident.
Bush said he lives in a community that gets blasted daily from coal surface mining operations. There is no life in the stream near his house anymore, and it is full of silt, he said.
Kathy Selvage, a Wise County resident and environmental activist, described herself as the daughter of a coal miner. But she said she opposes mountaintop removal mining because of what it does to the environment.
“The last chapter in the book of mountaintop removal is how the transformation of one of the richest ecosystems in our lands – a national treasure, and this commonwealth’s as well – has been hopelessly destroyed and can never return to us,” Selvage said.
The bill’s opponents said it would destroy the lifeblood of the coalfield economy.
“Coal mining is the economic engine of our county and adjoining counties in Southwest Virginia,” said J.H. Rivers, chairman of the Wise County Board of Supervisors. The board recently passed a resolution opposing SB 564.
Rivers’ sentiments were echoed by Wise County Supervisor Robert Adkins, whose father and grandfather were coal miners.
“Coal has been a godsend. It’s been a blessing to Wise County,” Adkins said.
Gary Prater, a member of the Grundy Town Council, agreed.
“Senate Bill 564 will kill jobs for Buchanan County, surface or underground or otherwise. We cannot have this bill,” Prater said.
Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices, an environmental group, gave the opening presentation at the hearing. He said job losses from the bill could be offset by new jobs associated with reclamation projects – projects to rehabilitate mined lands.
Wasson also cited a study by the Appalachia Regional Commission that said energy efficiency initiatives could create 77,000 jobs in Appalachia.
“We are not restricted in Southwest Virginia to only coal mining. There are many opportunities, but it’s going to take leadership,” Wasson said.
After the hearing was opened to public comment, about 15 people from each side of the issue addressed the committee. They were supposed to limit their comments to three minutes, but many ran over their allotted time.