West Virginia coal operators want the state to permit bigger and bigger strip mines. The state seems willing. But federal regulators may stop them.
Take Pittston Coal, for example. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the company to slash the size of a new Logan County mine by nearly 40 percent.
Under pressure from the EPA, Pittston's Elkay Mining subsidiary reduced the amount of streams it would bury under mine waste piles called valley fills. As a result, the company won't mine all the coal it wanted to.
So far, the EPA has intervened to review only a few strip mine permits, like Pittston's, that allowed companies to fill large streams with mine waste. A bill approved by the Legislature would allow coal companies to fill in bigger streams without compensating the state.
If Gov. Cecil Underwood approves the change, other coal companies might face EPA scrutiny and be forced to make concessions similar to Pittston's.
EPA officials could review every mining permit application in the state. Coal operators might have to wait longer to get permits. They might have to travel to Philadelphia to talk with permit reviewers. State regulators, and the politicians they work for, could lose control over the process.
"A state official said this Pittston's permit is the first time an operator has had to make such a big change in its mining plan, and he expects continuing trouble from EPA on other pending mountaintop removal permits," reported Coal Outlook, an industry newsletter.
"EPA has been making more trouble for valley fill permits over the last year and a half," the newsletter said.
"An EPA official told Coal Outlook this is because valley fills have been getting bigger and bigger, thus causing concern. The EPA official agreed that large valley fills will get continued heavy scrutiny."
Bigger all the time
Over the last 25 years, strip mines have become an increasingly important part of West Virginia's coal industry.
Since the mid-1970s, the share of West Virginia coal produced by strip mines has doubled. Today, strip mines account for roughly one-third of the coal mined in the state. In the last five years alone, the average size of strip mines has also doubled. Today, the average mine permitted by the state measures 450 acres, roughly the size of 360 football fields.
Coal companies need someplace to put the huge amounts of rock and earth they dig up to get at valuable coal seams. Much of this material, which operators call spoil, is dumped into streams. It fills up and levels off hollows.
Federal and state regulators require companies to compensate the public for the loss of streams covered over by valley fills. Companies can build recreational lakes or pay the state money. The money goes into a fund used for similar projects. This compensation is known in legal terms as "mitigation."
Currently, coal operators must mitigate when streams filled in cover drainage areas of 250 acres or more.
The bill passed by the Legislature would raise this threshold to 480 drainage acres. Companies could fill in much bigger streams without compensating for the loss.
The bill was pushed by House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, by coal industry lobbyists Bill Raney and Ben Greene and by A.T. Massey Coal lobbyist K.O. Damron.
Some other coal companies, including Pittston and Arch Coal, did not push the measure. They don't want the permitting delays an EPA takeover might involve. They don't like the negative publicity about strip mining.
Filling Freeze Fork
In late 1996, Pittston Coal applied for a permit to open a new mine near Ethel in Logan County.
The company's Elkay Mining subsidiary would use huge shovels and bulldozers to produce 1.4 million tons of coal a year for about 15 years, according to state Division of Environmental Protection permit records.