"We are definitely evaluating the overall issue," said Dan Sweeney, an environmental engineer with EPA Region III.
"But at this point, we're just talking among ourselves," he said. "It's a little early to say what EPA will do right now."
While EPA officials in Philadelphia wrung their hands over big valley fills, Penny Loeb spent much of last year in Southern West Virginia.
Loeb, a senior investigative editor with the magazine U.S. News and World Report, visited Logan County to talk with residents who live near big strip mines. She studied DEP files that detailed how mines are regulated. She interviewed coal company executives who touted successful reclamation.
Loeb concluded strip mines were out of control.
"Seventy-six years ago, Blair Mountain was a battleground in the bitter attempt to unionize underground mines," she wrote in her article, "Shear Madness," published in early August.
"Now the descendants of those miners are fighting a new battle. They are losing their mountains and valleys," she wrote. "The costs are indisputable, and the damage to the landscape is startling to those who have never seen a mountain destroyed."
Coal industry officials were outraged.
They wrote U.S. News and World Report to complain.
"You have strung together a handful of isolated incidents and portrayed them as a pattern of abuse," wrote Steven F. Leer, president and CEO of Arch Coal.
"The reality is this: Coal mining is carried out in close proximately to hundreds of communities in Central Appalachia," Leer wrote. "With few exceptions, this mining is conducted in a careful, safe and responsible manner, and with the full support of the communities in which it is carried out."
Richard Lawson, president of the National Mining Association, wrote that Loeb's article was "an insult to the mining industry and the hundreds of dedicated federal and state mine inspectors.
"By drawing upon a handful of isolated incidents, you reach several very general and incorrect conclusions, including that 'hardly any' mining reclamation projects abide by reclamation laws," Lawson wrote.
"After mining, the law requires land restoration to either premining or better uses, which the industry and its highly skilled work force have accomplished with the reclamation of millions of acres."
During an interview in late September, a month after Loeb's article was published, Gov. Cecil Underwood said he had not had time to read it.
Asked for his general impression of strip mining, Underwood said it would be good for long-term economic development efforts. "My view of mountaintop removal is it creates a lot of artificially flat land in places we don't have flat land."
'More than a headache'
A week after Loeb's article hit the streets, West Virginia reporters got a chance to see if she was right.
For years, DEP and coal industry lobby groups co-sponsored an annual mine tour. It focused on successful reclamation projects and advances in mining technology.
Wendy Radcliff, DEP's environmental advocate, wanted to show the other side.
So in mid-August, reporters, citizens and DEP officials piled into four-wheel-drive vehicles and visited coalfield trouble-spots.
In Logan County, the group parked in the gravel lot at the Blair Post Office.
Carlos Gore told them about an Arch Coal blast that tossed rocks bigger than softballs into his backyard.
"If a rock this big hits you or your car or your house, you're going to have more than a headache," Gore said.
"It's going to ruin your whole week, because there's going to be a funeral."
Vicky Moore said blasting dust is often so thick she can't see her neighbors' homes.
She has to turn on headlights to drive.
"The surface mining law is designed to protect people," said Pat McGinley, a WVU law professor who represents Moore in a suit against Arch Coal.
"It's designed to protect communities and it's designed to protect the environment," he said. "But it's not being enforced."
Coal industry lobbyists Bill Raney and Ben Greene stood at the edge of the post office parking lot and listened to the residents' stories.
"Of course you have sympathy for them," said Raney, who is president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
"But the one thing that strikes me is that there was no malice intended," Raney said.
"No one in the industry sets out in the morning to do something like that."
A few weeks later, Greene's group, the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, attacked the DEP tour.
"The citizens' tour appears to be the culmination of a well-coordinated, summer long, anti-coal campaign," the newsletter said. "All signs point to a regional campaign, with West Virginia as the focal point. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
'Blasting scares me'
Kayla Bragg and Dustin Moore could barely reach the microphone in the House of Delegates chamber. They drove to Charleston with their parents for a public hearing in late February.
The Braggs, the Moores and other coalfield residents wanted the Legislature to crack down on strip- mine blasting.
Currently, it's almost impossible to prove that mine blasting damaged nearby homes.
A bill sponsored by Delegate Arley Johnson, D-Cabell, would have fixed that.
Under the bill, any structural damage that did not exist prior to mining would be presumed to have been caused by blasting. The bill would apply to homes within 5,000 feet of blasting sites.
"Blasting scares me and I can't breathe good when it stirs up the dust," said Dustin, an 8-year-old asthmatic whose mother is Vicky Moore.
"One day a blast went off and knocked my school picture down."
Kayla, a 10-year-old from Beech Creek in Mingo County, said, "When a blast goes off, I get scared because the windows shake. I would very much appreciate it if you would pass this blasting bill."
The blasting bill did not pass. The Legislature agreed to study the issue for a year in monthly interim committee meetings.
"The coal industry killed our blasting bill, and then they fought hard to kill this study resolution," said Jack Caudill, an West Virginia Organizing Project activist from Man.
"It's about time the Legislature did at least one small thing for the common people."
Coal industry lobbyists had a bill they wanted the Legislature to pass, too.
The measure would make it much easier for companies to fill in streams with excess rock and earth from big strip mines.
Federal regulators opposed the bill. Citizens and environmental activists fought it.
Top state DEP officials, including Deputy Director Mark Scott and water office chief Barb Taylor, testified against it.
Two days before the session ended, DEP Director John Caffrey intervened. Caffrey said publicly that his agency wasn't opposed to the bill.
Scott and Taylor weren't speaking for the agency when they testified against it, Caffrey said.
House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, pushed the legislation. K.O. Damron, lobbyist for A.T. Massey, was its biggest advocate among industry officials.
On the last night of the session, the bill was approved.
Rank, the Highlands Conservancy member, wasn't surprised. But she said the fight over strip mining is nowhere near over.
"I think the industry is losing the fight," she said last week. "They're losing in the public eye. They're losing on legal grounds. They're losing on technical grounds and scientific grounds.
"So they chose to take the battle to where they have the most power - the political process at the Legislature and among the people who run the DEP.
"But the rest of the world is beginning to understand there are problems," she said.
"Everyone has to become more aware of what's going on. If people don't see it, coal companies will just keep doing what they're doing."