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Number of mountaintop mines in state is unknown

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.

For example, a few years ago, a reporter asked Halstead how many surface mine operators proposed to reclaim their sites to the forests that were there before.

DEP didn't keep that information in its computer. Field office staff had to review individual permits, in paper files, to figure out the answer.

After that exercise, Halstead asked that post-mining land use information be added to the computer permit database. It was, but many permit reviewers still don't type it in when they receive new applications, and land use information for old permits might never be added to the computer database.

"Databases, no matter whether you are The Charleston Gazette or DEP, aren't perfect," Halstead said. "We're just entering the computer age, and that stuff takes time and cash."

The DEP mining office headquarters is also known for having one of the best public file-review libraries in state government.

Formal Freedom of Information Act requests aren't necessary. Citizens can walk in off the street and review files (provided, under new rules instituted by DEP Director Michael Miano, that they sign in and wear a visitor badge). David Gay, who runs the file room, can recite permit numbers for just about any mine in the state.

Still, the file library research method is far from perfect.

Reviewing hundreds - let alone thousands - of surface mining permits to understand trends in post-mining land uses, reclamation variances, or environmental restrictions is practically impossible.

Even if one had the time and energy to do it, the paper permit files are far from complete.

Until two years ago, the DEP's standard surface mining permit application didn't contain a spot to note whether the mine received an approximate original contour variance. Older permits often don't contain that information, and many don't even have maps or cross-sections that clearly explain the approved mining plan.

Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston field office of the U.S. Office of Surface mining, said there's not much he can do to make DEP beef up its record-keeping.

"OSM doesn't have many reporting requirements," Calhoun said. In fact, OSM and other federal agencies are going in the opposite direction - requiring less information be reported, filed, and studied.


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