Bush policies fueling coal's comeback in hills of W.Va.

But some blame easing of regulations for damage

July 05, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOB WHITE, W.Va. - Deep in the hard-luck hills of West Virginia, a battle is raging over the future of coal. It involves matters as far-reaching as President Bush's re-election efforts and as particular as the crater in Maria Gunnoe's front yard.

Gunnoe, who lives in this speck-on-a-map town an hour south of Charleston, blames aggressive coal mining for flooding a hillside and leaving the hole in the ground where she used to park her car. Mining officials counter that their work does not lead to flooding and that they can't control acts of nature.

"They call it an act of God, but it has trashed my house and my life," Gunnoe said. Her father and grandfather mined coal. But she said she thinks too many surface mines are operating in her swath of southern West Virginia, disfiguring the land and causing, among other troubles, water to run off mountains and onto private property.

"It's devastating us here," she said.

Whatever damaged Gunnoe's yard, coal mining is making a comeback in West Virginia, thanks in large part to the president. He won this traditionally Democratic state in 2000 after pledging to reinvigorate its coal industry. The industry, a source of pride in the state, has struggled through lackluster years.

People on each side of the issue say Bush made good on his promise to boost coal in at least one way: by making it easier to obtain permits - a process that had long frustrated mines that wished to expand. In 2003, companies were able to acquire permits to mine 22,000 acres of West Virginia, compared with 10,000 acres in 2000, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Yesterday, Bush - again promoting himself as coal's friend - visited Charleston, the second time in three years he has celebrated Independence Day with West Virginians. A day earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney campaigned in Wheeling. The back-to-back visits reflect how vital West Virginia could be in November - one of about a dozen swing states that are expected to decide the election.

The course of the war in Iraq and the health of the national economy will drive the decisions of most voters in November. But as Bush's and John Kerry's campaigns well know, impassioned local debates can sway voters in battleground states.

Analysts believe, for example, that Bush's support for coal, as well as for gun rights, won over many West Virginia Democrats four years ago, helping him defeat Al Gore in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. Had Gore grabbed the state's five electoral votes, he would be in the White House.

Already this year, the Bush campaign has bought newspaper ads in the state bashing Kerry as anti-coal. Its strategy is to portray Kerry as a left-leaning senator beholden to environmental regulations that will squeeze jobs out of the coal industry. "John Kerry makes Al Gore look like an industrialist," said Reed Dickens, the Bush campaign's West Virginia spokesman.

A Kerry campaign spokeswoman, Amy Shuler-Goodwin, said her boss "knows that coal is an important energy source" and is committed to mining coal "in an environmentally safe manner." She noted that Kerry has received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers, a powerful labor group, and said he sees miners as a "critical base" of voters in West Virginia.

Democrats' tactic

Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said state Democrats are trying to turn the coal issue against Bush. They argue that he has broken his promises to fund research into cleaner ways to burn coal and that his environmental policies have created unsafe conditions for workers. Rupp added that voters saw Gore in 2000 as more left-leaning on the environment than Kerry has been perceived so far.

"There were a lot of voters, especially coal workers, who felt Gore favored the environment over jobs," Rupp said. "The Bush campaign is trying to paint Kerry with the same brush. But it remains a question whether it will work."

This time, the debate in West Virginia focuses mostly on surface mining. This occurs when workers blast off mountain peaks and then dig into the exposed earth in search of coal. The removed ground is poured into a valley or fill. Industry officials say the practice has boosted the state's economy and has helped keep up with a demand for coal that is rising, in part because of soaring prices for natural gas, a coal alternative.

Deck Slone, a spokesman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, which surface-mines about 12 million tons of coal in West Virginia annually, said the company helps pay to redevelop damaged land. He noted that his company helped build a golf course, a fish hatchery, shopping malls and a highway - all of them over once-mined areas.

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