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OSM report: Strip mine acreage rises ahead of reclaimed land

Read the report here.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia coal operators continue to obtain permits to strip mine more of West Virginia's hills and hollows than they reclaim, according to the latest figures from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

In its yearly review of West Virginia's strip mine regulatory program, the OSM reported that nearly 305,000 acres -- an area larger than Logan County -- were under permit by mining operators as of the end of June 2010. That's a slight increase over 302,000 as of June 2009.

Mine operators received permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection for nearly 9,500 acres of new mining, compared to 6,400 acres of mine sites that reached final reclamation by the end of the period examined by the OSM.

The 80-page report, published this week, provides a wealth of statistics about strip mining in West Virginia, updates on OSM review of various problem spots in DEP's programs, and a long list of lawsuits challenging industry and agency practices.

Among other things, the annual report revealed the findings of a new OSM review that found problems in the way DEP officials sometimes allow more significant permit changes to be approved through a streamlined process for "incidental boundary revisions," or smaller changes in permitted mine areas.

The OSM also detailed its continuing concerns about staffing levels within the DEP's Division of Mining and Reclamation.

The DEP listed 268 full-time equivalent positions, but had 33 vacancies.

"The number of vacancies continued to increase primarily due to retirements," the OSM said. "Most of the vacancies are in permitting and inspection and enforcement.

"Given the continued decline in total WVDEP regulatory staffing and the number of vacancies, [the] OSM continues to make staffing a priority issue with the state," mining agency said. "State officials acknowledge that they have made some progress in filling vacancies and they hope to fill 9 positions in the near future. In the past, state officials have admitted that they have had difficulty hiring and retaining technical staff."

The report indicates that the DEP and OSM continue to put together a new inventory of bonded permit sites with significant acid mine-drainage pollution that require treatment.

"The remaining tasks relate to approximately 190 permits that require additional investigation to more accurately characterize water treatment costs and flow and water quality data for approximately 15 [percent] to 20 percent of the sites," the OSM report said. "Furthermore, additional information is needed regarding pumped discharge rates at underground mines; flow and chemistry data to estimate water treatment costs; and to complete a comprehensive reporting system."

The report also found that the DEP has not yet updated a guidance document to better advise its staff on predicting when new underground mine permits might create acid mine drainage, and that the OSM remains concerned about the pending insolvency of the state fund that cleans up mine sites abandoned after the federal strip-mining law was passed in 1977.

The OSM said the program "will remain solvent until around 2038, but then it will go into the red largely because of water treatment."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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