Big Coal Attempting Land Grab

History Repeating Itself?

(This was an editorial in the Charleston Gazette on September 23, 1998)

Using deceit, sympathetic judges and far-off courthouses, coal and land companies won mineral rights to most of West Virginia’s coal-rich terrain a century ago.

Today, coal companies are turning to the Legislature to make it easier to extract coal from land they only partly control, even if those who own title to the rest of the land say no.

The West Virginia Coal Association asked legislators to pass a law making it unnecessary to go to court to mine coal seams as long as a company owns 51 percent of a tract. The company would merely notify "co-owners" and the state tax commissioner and publish a map and notice of intent to mine.

These "co-owners" would receive royalties, and if the landowners were unknown, royalties would go to the tax commissioner, who would hold it in escrow for 10 years.

"Such a new law would benefit all and prejudice none," said Bill Raney, president of the state coal association. Raney has got to be kidding. This law would benefit coal and nobody else. We presume coal companies would be able to use the most economical and environmentally damaging form of mining -- mountaintop removal – regardless of what "co-owners" of the land want. Families living on farms presumably would receive a notice that their woodsy serenity was about to be replaced by a blast-shattered moonscape.

The coal association wants to trade away landowners’ rights, merely to save coal companies money. Each trip to court costs coal companies about $50,000. An executive of CONSOL Inc. of Pittsburgh said his company has to go to court about 10 times a year.

So West Virginians are supposed to give up their rights in order to save a coal company $500,000 a year -- a company with annual revenues exceeding $2.4 billion?

Any legislator who votes for this bill will show where his or her loyalties lie.