CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Press Association are speaking out today to draw attention to a “sneaky possum” bill addressing the West Virginia coal industry that is currently being considered in the West Virginia Senate.
Senate Bill 626 — with Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, as the sole sponsor — has the summary title “Relating generally to coal mining.” It originated on Monday, Feb. 19 in the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining committee, which Smith chairs, was sent straight to the floor and is already on third reading. The bill deals with surface mining applications.
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, addressed major issues with the bill.
“The process undercuts public participation,” Rosser said. ” This bill originated in committee, was sent straight to the floor, and the text was not posted publicly until Monday evening of this week. That basically gave the public and stakeholders not included in the negotiating process only one day to analyze the bill, educate and consult with our members, and try to reach each of you with concerns before it was in amendment stage.”
Rosser said the bill is more than just “relating generally to coal mining.”
“The bill largely deletes an entire section of the Water Pollution Control Act. There simply isn’t enough time afforded to responsibly offer the Legislators an analysis of the implications of passing this bill. The fast-track of an originating bill that isn’t publicly available until hours before it’s on the floor puts citizens in an impossible position of being able to weigh in,” Rosser said.
Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said the tactics are shameful and live up to the West Virginia Legislature’s history of having bills run quickly late in the session to ensure opponents have no opportunity to object. “I’ve heard that such bills were referred to as ‘Sneaky Possums running at night’ and I think this is a good example. The Senate and the Legislature as a whole should not allow such action. It makes the people of West Virginia question the ethics of the Legislature and the West Virginia coal industry.”
If opponents of the bill were treated unfairly in the Legislative process, Smith said the bill treats residents of West Virginia who live near the proposed surface mining sites even worse.
“Among other issues with the bill and the process, the bill would completely eliminate the assurance that notice of a surface mining application for a region of the state would be available in the impacted local community. The bill eliminates the requirement of publication in a community newspaper of record in favor of doing public notification ‘in a manner prescribed by the secretary, which manner may be electronic’,” Smith said. “Instead of requiring publication in a community newspaper as currently required by state code, this bill would allow a state official to control where, when and how notice is made. That is not fair to the people of the community and those who might oppose the plan. Based on the way this bill was handled, we have pretty good example of how the public notice would be handled. Too little and too late.”
Rosser said the public notice changes would cut the public’ awareness.
“The bill removes the requirement for notice by publication of surface mining permits. Abandoning notice by publication is premature until affordable broadband access for all West Virginians is a reality. In the meantime, this change needs to be rejected. It cuts sections of the public, especially rural areas where most surface mining occurs, out of the public notice process,” she said.
Both Rosser and Smith hope the Senate will table the bill and allow for more input.
“We recommend tabling the bill to give the public and the members a chance to give these changes fuller consideration,” Rosser said.
Smith added that the Legislative process should allow for public comment and respond but the process of this bill eliminating that option. “The Senate should table the bill and allow for public comment.”