LOGAN - Ken Stollings points to the maps and charts on his office wall to show how Hobet Mining will turn the rugged peaks and valleys around Blair Mountain into flat plains and a few rolling hills.
Stollings, a Division of Environmental Protection engineer, shows the changes to his boss, agency permit supervisor Larry Alt. Asked if this proposal meets the legal mandate that mined land be reclaimed to its "approximate original contour," Alt and Stollings just laugh.
"We just can't stack it as high as God did," Alt says with a shrug.
Approximate original contour, or AOC, is the heart of the federal strip mining law. But among many West Virginia regulators, it's becoming a joke.
Congress passed the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to make strip operators put land back, as best they could, the way it was before they mined it.
Under the law's AOC requirement, operators must reclaim mined land so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."
Lawmakers allowed narrow exemptions. Coal operators could ignore AOC, and flatten out the land, if they planned future development, such as schools, factories or public parks. But to qualify for those exemptions, mining companies were supposed to have detailed project plans in hand before mining permits were approved.
Today, these rules are routinely skirted by dozens of huge mountaintop-removal strip mines in Southern West Virginia, according to a three-month Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation.
Giant earth-moving machines chop hundreds of feet off the tops of mountains. Rather than go to the time and expense of putting the mountains back - a task some say isn't possible, anyway - mine operators dump millions of tons of rock and earth into nearby valleys.
Rugged hills and hollows of Boone, Logan, Mingo and other Southern coal counties are flattened, or replaced with a few gently rolling hills. Hundreds of miles of streams are buried, or replaced by manmade diversion ditches.
Last year, more than two-thirds of the area permitted for new strip mining was for mountaintop removal. In 1997 alone, DEP approved 20 new mountaintop-removal permits that cover 20 square miles.
Companies that operate these mines, including Arch Coal Inc., A.T. Massey Coal and Pittston Coal, rarely ask for or receive approximate original contour exemptions for mountaintop removal, according to state records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Three-quarters of the active mountaintop-removal mining permits in West Virginia were not granted the required exemption, according to the records.
But regulators also hesitate to push companies to return these mines to their approximate original contour.
State environmental officials say that a vague legal definition of approximate original contour often ties their hands.
"'Closely resembles the general surface configuration' - who the hell knows what that means?" said John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation.
"Nobody has ever defined it," Ailes said. "What's AOC to you might not be AOC to me. That is truly difficult for the agency. We're forced to make these interpretations without any guidance."
While mountaintop-removal mining - meant to be the exception - becomes the rule, federal officials have done little to address the issue.
Top U.S. Office of Surface Mining officials declined requests by their own inspectors for more concrete guidance on what constitutes approximate original contour. In fact, OSM several years ago issued a ruling that made the term more vague.
And, in more than 20 years of keeping watch on state regulators, OSM has never fully examined how well the West Virginia DEP handles AOC and mountaintop-removal exemptions during its permitting process.
Last week, the top lobbyist for the state's coal industry conceded there may be some problems. But he insisted they are technical, permitting matters that aren't causing major environmental damage.
"Maybe there is something there that needs to be looked at," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "Maybe there's an explanation for it.
"It sounds like to me DEP needs to take a look to see if they meet all the requirements," Raney added. "Apparently, there are some issues to be addressed, but they have little do with environmental compliance."
Congress debated the federal strip mining law for years. The measure was opposed by coal operators, and twice vetoed by President Ford. President Carter signed it on Aug. 3, 1977.
Lawmakers bickered repeatedly over whether operators should be allowed to conduct mountaintop-removal mining at all.
In old-time strip mining, machines chipped away at the sides of hills to slice off coal reserves. In mountaintop removal, much bigger machines shave off the entire tops of mountains.
Draglines, giant shovels that look like cranes, dig out multiple seams of coal from the whole length of ridges at once.
Environmentalists and some members of Congress, including then-Rep. Ken Hechler, D-W.Va., wanted to ban mountaintop removal altogether.
"This is not only aesthetically bad, as anyone can tell who flies over the state of West Virginia or any places where the mountaintops are scalped off, but also it is devastating to those people who live below the mountain," Hechler said in a 1974 debate.
Others said that if Congress outlawed mountaintop removal, and made all mines return to the approximate original contour, it would kill the Appalachian mining industry.
Some members of West Virginia's congressional delegation, including Sen. Jennings Randolph and Rep. John Slack, both Democrats, also argued that allowing mine operators to flatten out the hills would be good for economic development.
"In the state of West Virginia, we have a need for level land," Randolph said in 1973. "We know that ofttimes surface mining can allow for the location of a school, an airport, or for housing - not one, but many homesites."
Current U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who opposed strip mining during his bid for governor in 1972, spoke out in favor of mountaintop removal during a 1977 congressional hearing.
"Mountaintop removal should certainly be encouraged, if not specifically dictated, by proposed legislation," said Rockefeller, who was elected governor in 1976 after he dropped his opposition to strip mining.
In the end, Congress compromised.
Most of the time, mine operators would have to return land to its approximate original contour.
The idea was that coal operators should put all rock and earth removed to reach coal seams back on top of mined-out areas, to restore the mountains that existed before.
If there was any rock and earth - coal companies call it spoil - left after the mountains were rebuilt, operators could dump it in waste piles called valley fills.
In mountaintop-removal mining, rebuilding the mountains was considered impractical at best, and impossible at worst.
The law requires AOC-reclaimed slopes to be no more steep than a 2-1 horizontal-to-vertical rise. Often, Appalachian hills are much steeper. So a contradiction in the law prohibits strict AOC compliance. Loose rock and earth stacked on top of mountains, even when compacted by heavy equipment, is less stable than untouched, pre-mining hills. So operators can't always guarantee landslides won't occur if they go too far back toward AOC.
"AOC is impossible" for mountaintop removal mines, said Ben Greene, a former top state regulator who now lobbies for the coal industry. "Approximate original contour in the sense that you re-create everything that was there and bring back what God created is impossible.
"You do not re-create that mountain," Greene added. "That has never been anybody's idea or intention."
Congress agreed that, in some cases, approximate original contour probably wasn't possible.
Lawmakers went so far as to conclude that not putting the mountains back could sometimes be a good idea.
Under the law, coal operators could not return mined land to its approximate original contour if they received one of two types of exemptions.
One applies to mountaintop-removal mining; the other covers mining on slopes steeper than 20 degrees.
To qualify for these exemptions, however, mine operators must show in their permit applications that they will leave the land generally better than it was before they mined.
In the case of mountaintop removal, operators must plan future development of commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural or public facilities.
And to qualify, operators must have development plans in hand, and meet a list of other requirements, before they receive a permit. They must show development plans fit in with neighboring land uses. They have to prove there's a market need for the development. And, they have to show that any necessary public approvals and that financing is available.
Since the federal law was passed, strip mining in West Virginia has boomed.