Clarke agreed that these are a factor. He cited how the department had greatly increased its staffing in the early 1980s, when federal regulators began shifting oversight to states.
"Now we're coming to the point where people who have made a career out of that work are at retirement age,'' Clarke said. "We have about 40 percent of our division eligible to retire in the next five years.''
He also told lawmakers that the industry lures away well-performing staff with better pay. But Clarke reserves blame mostly for EPA, tracing the delays to that agency's decision in July 2009 to resume scrutiny of pollution permits for surface mines. EPA had previously waived that oversight since 1982.
The EPA has since provided conflicting guidance to state regulators, while seeking to require them to meet with multiple federal agencies regarding surface mining operations. West Virginia has sued over some of these practices, Clarke reminded the legislators.
Clarke said permits issued in 2008 took 231 days on average to process, a slight increase from the prior year. That turnaround time lengthened to an average of 515 days for permits issued last year, he said.
"We attribute most of that to EPA's involvement with the interjection of these new issues, some to the process, and some to increased involvement of the environmental community,'' Clarke said.
The latter is reflected by a rise in FOIA requests, Clarke said. Tuesday's report counted 318 requests in 2008, 708 in 2011 and 431 this year as of June. Such public scrutiny plays a role in the delays, audit analyst Keith Brown told lawmakers.
Brown also said that auditors noted Clarke's views in the report, but did not alter their findings. They will instead review materials recently provided by his agency for a future report, Brown said.