Lawmakers are already in Charleston holding committee meetings, drafting bills and considering legislation to prepare for the January opening day for the 2020 West Virginia Legislature.

Not every bill gets passed in every legislative session for one reason or another. Some bills get killed due to lack of lawmaker support. Some bills die because of public outcry and other bills get kicked down the docket like the old game of kick the can.

One bill we believe should die quickly is a proposal recently voted out of committee that will effectively take away property rights from homeowners.

In the Legislature’s Rule-Making Committee, lawmakers voted to add language that was written by Oakland, Maryland-based Metikki Coal LLC that would give coal companies say over how homes that are damaged by coal mining operations would get fixed.

Currently, West Virginia state law says that if mining subsidence – when mining causes the land to sink, collapse or crack – damages structures such as homes above ground, coal operators shall either repair the damage or compensate the owners for the amount that the structure lost in value. In many cases in West Virginia, residents own their homes and surrounding land, but not the rights to resources underground.

Many of these type of damages are caused by the process of longwall mining, which is frequently used by Metikki LLC.

Metikki, Murray Energy and Tunnel Ridge LLC all claim that a January 2018 West Virginia Supreme Court ruling that allows the homeowner to decide which remedy was leading to more litigation.

The problem with this bill is that it raises more questions than it provides answers. For example, whose appraisal would be used in determining the value the structure lost by the coal subsidence? Would it be the homeowner’s or the coal company’s appraisal?

The wording that gave the lions’ share of power to the coal companies was drafted by Sen. Ryan Weld, (R-Brooke), who argued that coal operators historically have decided the appropriate remedy in cases involving damage to a home.

Weld also tried to argue that federal law gives coal companies the authority to decide which remedy to offer homeowners.

However, Jason Wandling, general counsel for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, quickly responded to Weld’s assertion on federal law. Wandling said nothing in the federal rule says the permitee gets to pick or the landowner gets to pick.

Historically, Wandling said, DEP required the permitee and the landowner to come to an acceptable resolution together or take the issue to circuit court.

To try and clarify the current rules, DEP asked Weld’s committee members to add a section to clarify that DEP does not adjudicate property rights disputes.

When all is said and done and the bill moves out of full committee, let’s hope lawmakers in Charleston don’t play kick the can with this bill. West Virginians deserve clarity in their laws and proper compensation when their property is damaged.

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