State regulators don't know how many mountaintop removal mines there are in West Virginia.
The state Division of Environmental Protection can't give an accurate count of how many mountaintop mines received required reclamation variances.
DEP also can't tell you how many acres of the state have been mined by mountaintop removal methods, or provide a rundown of what types of post-mining land uses mine operators proposed.
John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, readily admits the agency hasn't done a very good job keeping track of such things. But he promises that will change.
"We don't have a very good historical database," Ailes said last month. "We're currently redefining that system based on informational needs."
The DEP computer system, known as ERIN - for Environmental Resource Information Network - and the agency's team of computer experts are considered among the best in state government.
But for a variety of reasons, crucial pieces of information about surface mining aren't kept in the computer system. Even those that are supposed to be included in computer databases aren't always there, officials say.
As an example, consider the seemingly simple task of finding out how many mountaintop removal mines have been permitted in West Virginia.
DEP maintains a permit database that contains information about more than 7,700 surface mining permits issued since the state started regulating coal mining.
For each permit, the database allows DEP to indicate what kind of activity was allowed by the permit. This database "field" can tell you whether the permit was for a preparation plant, the surface portion of an underground mine, or any of the various types of surface mines.
But, the database has that information filled in for only about 3,000 of the 7,700 permits on file.
In the cases of the other 4,700 permits, the information might not be there because the permit was approved years ago and the "activity allowed" information never added to the database. But in many cases, the information is missing for newer permits as well.
Lewis Halstead, assistant chief for permitting at the DEP mining office, said he has a hard time getting permit reviewers to add the information when permit applications are filed.