More than 1,000 people filled the well of the state Capitol’s rotunda in response to last week’s regulatory action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The crowd also included scores of opponents of mountaintop removal mining who support the EPA action.
EPA announced last week that it’s revoking a crucial water permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine. The 2,300-acre Logan County operation would have been the state’s largest mountaintop removal site.
Tomblin, a Democrat, was the first in a string a speakers at the hourlong event to blast EPA for that decision.
‘‘This is about sending a message to Washington,’’ Tomblin said. ‘‘This rally is about jobs, plain and simple.’’
Tomblin also responded to critics from the environmental movement who slammed him Wednesday as an industry shill for organizing the event.
‘‘This rally is not about any one coal company. This rally is not about lobbying for the coal industry,’’ he said.
The acting governor also received applause when he told the crowd that West Virginia ‘‘can mine coal in an environmentally sound manner.’’
EPA concluded that the Spruce permit would cause irreparable environmental damage and threaten the health of nearby communities. Environmental groups have fought for years to stop it.
With mountaintop removal, coal companies blast apart ridgelines to expose the coal seams beneath. They then dump leftover rock and soil into nearby valleys. Foes decry the impact on streams and wildlife in those valleys, as well as the effects of the blasting. The industry touts the method as efficient and productive.
During the rally, opponents held signs and at one point wove silently around the rotunda’s upper well. Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said they brought photos of blasting-scarred mining sites and jar of water they say was contaminated by mining operations.
Stockman said the opponents sought to combat what she called misinformation and hyperbole regarding mountaintop removal and EPA’s handling of the Spruce site.
‘‘Finally, they’re applying the science, applying the law and doing their jobs,’’ Stockman said. ‘‘We wanted to highlight the health impacts and all the hidden costs.’’
With Capitol police officers and state troopers on hand, the event remained orderly.
Tomblin has been acting as governor since the November resignation of fellow Democrat and now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin also spoke at Thursday’s rally as did House Speaker Rick Thompson, acting Senate President Jeff Kessler and that chamber’s GOP leader, Sen. Mike Hall.
Other speakers included Diann Kish and Linda Dials, who spoke on behalf of family members in the industry. The rally brought a throng to the Capitol nine days into the Legislature’s regular, 60-day session. It also follows Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling that mandate an election for governor this year. Tomblin, Thompson and Kessler are among the emerging Democratic candidates in that race.
During the rally, nine coal-laden barges idled on the Kanawha River just across from the south edge of the Capitol grounds. With 27 of West Virginia’s 55 counties extracting the fossil fuel, residents from across the state traveled to Charleston for the rally.
Everett Selders, 64, was bused in along with other International Coal Group miners by their employer to attend the event.
‘‘I hope we can strip more coal and get more coal out of the ground. That’s West Virginia’s priority, coal,’’ Selders said.
Jacob Asbury, 23, can trace coal miners in his family back at least three generations. He works for Phillips Machinery in Beckley, which provides heavy equipment to the industry.
‘‘We’re just down here to support coal,’’ Asbury said.
Mountaintop removal accounted for one-fifth of West Virginia’s mining work force and nearly 30 percent of the coal it produced in 2009, the latest year for state figures. West Virginia is the U.S.’s second-largest provider of that energy source.
But Gary White of the state’s Coal Association told the crowd that the rally was not just about the Spruce permit, mountaintop removal or even mining in general.
‘‘It’s about our economy,’’ he said to applause. ‘‘And most importantly, it’s about the security of this nation.’’