An array of West Virginia's top political leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder Tuesday with executives from the state's top coal producers, vowing to form a united front in the face of what they call mixed signals and heavy-handedness from federal mining regulators.
Gov. Joe Manchin arranged the summit, attracting U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and aides to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
The group of several dozen, which also included many of the state Legislature's top leaders, met behind closed doors for nearly two hours in a temporary banquet hall erected just outside the governor's mansion. Manchin and a number of the attendees later spoke to reporters at the nearby state Capitol.
"We heard a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of anger as to how to proceed," said Rahall, who represents the state's coal-rich south. "Certainly, the lack of a definitive plan of action by our federal agencies has caused this frustration."
The governor said those who attended have set a goal of securing a meeting with top White House officials, and then pressing the case for coal "in a clear voice." Manchin has previously pressed for a one-on-one sit-down with President Barack Obama over the importance of mining.
"This state has basically given most of the people in this great country of ours the life they have today because of the energy we produce," Manchin said. "We know that they are going to continue to need it for quite some time as we transition to the fuels of the future. We're just trying to find that balance right now."
Less than a fourth of the energy consumed in the U.S. last year came from coal, but it accounted for just over half the country's electric power and West Virginia is its second-largest producer.
Coalfield county commissioners, also in attendance, requested the session. They say the Obama administration has rattled their key employers and corporate taxpayers with its handling of mining permits.
"The uncertainty is there," said Logan County Commissioner Art Kirkendoll.
Many of the concerns center on rules regulating the mountaintop removal method of mining. This form of surface mining blast apart ridge tops to expose multiple seams of coal, and then dumps the resulting debris into valleys.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently held up 79 mining permits in West Virginia and three other states for additional review. Last month, EPA announced plans to revoke a previously issued permit for what would be Appalachia's largest authorized mountaintop removal site, in Kirkendoll's county.
A White House spokesperson could not immediately comment when contacted about the meeting late Tuesday. Several environmental groups criticized the governor for excluding them, and the public, from the meeting.
"Clearly, it makes us very angry and very frustrated that they are continuing to ignore the real concerns of the people who live here," said Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch, who added that "the federal government needs to come in and take over the state of West Virginia, all the way from the governor to the dog catcher."
Rockefeller, who had started his political career as a 1970s critic of surface mining, said the flattened earth left by mountaintop removal aids economic development in West Virginia.
"We can't exist without it," he said at the press briefing.
Mountaintop removal mines employed 17.5 percent of West Virginia's mine workers last year, and accounted for a quarter of the coal produced, according to state figures. But several of Tuesday's attendees said that the EPA is also creating uncertainty regarding underground mining permits.
"The current stalemate is going to have a huge impact on the state," said Paul Vining, president & chief operating officer of Patriot Coal Corp.
Associated Press Staff Writer Vicki Smith in Morgantown contributed to this report.