CHARLESTON - When asked why he thinks the state legislature has given coal companies preferential treatment, attorney John Skaggs, a man undertaking the most complex of cases, gives the simplest of answers.
"It's obvious," he said. "Because they can."
Skaggs, of Charleston's The Calwell Practice, is representing Coal River Mountain Watch, a public interest group representing those who live along various public roads in coal producing counties that is fed up with the lack of enforcement of trucks exceeding the weight limits set forth by the West Virginia Department of Transportation.
The group filed a lawsuit Feb. 10 in Kanawha Circuit Court that lists Danny Ellis, the Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Transportation and The Public Service Commission of West Virginia as defendants, and is asking for a Declaratory Judgment in their favor as well as a Writ of Mandamus and a Writ of Prohibition regarding allowable weights under the Coal Resource Transportation System that was established by the state legislature in 2003.
The CRTS allows coal shippers a maximum weight of 126,000 pounds, when the maximum weight for other shippers is 88,000 pounds. Department of Transportation studies show that 75 percent of the state's bridges can't even handle 65,000 pounds safely.
In a 38-page complaint, Skaggs lays out the problems Coal River Mountain Watch has with the CRTS and argues that its creation was unconstitutional.
"The essence of it is pretty straight-forward," Skaggs said. "The legislature, by allowing trucks to weigh 126,000 pounds, is unconstitutionally violating the Department of Highways' own weight limitations on bridges. The technical or legal background for that is the old 1920 Good Roads Amendment that says there will be a state agency in charge and responsible for the highways in this state."
Skaggs feels that the legislature attempted to become that agency when it passed the CRTS, which has a system of fines for exceeding weight limits. However, those fines are so small, Skaggs argues, that it costs more to enforce them than to just ignore an overweight truck.
Skaggs has no timetable on when Circuit Judge Irene Berger calls the matter before her. Right now, the group does have a damages case pending in Lincoln County, but this lawsuit is about more than damages to Skaggs. The Declaratory Judgment he hopes for is will find the statute that the CRTS was created on unconstitutional, while the Writ of Mandamus would order the Department of Transportation to enforce weight limits and the Writ of Prohibition would stop the legislature from allowing trucks to exceed weight limits.
"The legislature, instead of leaving it to people who know what they're doing, allow these trucks to travel at rates and weights well in excess of what our bridges can handle," Skaggs said.
"They can get away with it, so they do it. They admitted that some trucks are running 140,000-160,000 pounds. They refused to obey the law, so the legislature came up with a compromise.
"That's like compromising with bank robbers over how much they're allowed to steal."
Part of the problem, Skaggs feels, is the perception of the coal industry being in dire straits. He argues that employment is down because of the modernization of the industry, but coal production has steadily increased in the past 10 years and that the state legislature shouldn't be sticking its hand out to rescue the industry when it is actually in no danger.
"You can't really hitch your wagon anymore to coal as a broad-based economic engine in West Virginia," Skaggs said. "It's just one component of our overall economy."
And the overloaded trucks, Skaggs said, are hurting the economy.
"What I think is amazing is that the Governor (Joe Manchin) will go to Texas and all these paces and recruit people from California and Washington to come live in West Virginia, then we have to tell them that they have to spend $2 billion to fix our roads," Skaggs said.
"Of course, it's a traditional exploitative industry, and that's the mentality and will always be the mentality.
"What has happened in the past 60 days (regarding trapped miners and loss of life), that any politician wants to be held responsible in case a bridge falls down is amazing to me. Nevertheless, they're willing to take that chance."