CANNELTON - Bullpush Mountain isn't a mountain anymore. It's a flat, grassy meadow that stands out among the wooded hills along the Fayette-Kanawha County line.
More than 25 years ago, Cannelton Industries Inc. chopped the top off Bullpush to get at the coal underneath. The operation, started in 1970, was the first mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
Cannelton officials promised that if they flattened out the land, they could more easily develop it. The company drew up plans to turn Bullpush into a brand-new town, complete with churches, schools, shops and a hospital.
None of that ever happened. No schools. No churches or shopping centers. Cattle don't graze anymore on the pasture where Bullpush Mountain used to be. Hay isn't grown there, either.
Across the Southern West Virginia coalfields, mountaintop removal mining is turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows - nobody knows how many - into flat pastures and rolling hayfields.
A new coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building "West Virginia's Own Field of Dreams."
"Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, 'Field of Dreams,' if we build the sites, they will come," the industry ads say. "And when they come, they will bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians."
A continuing Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that these predictions have not come true and that, without major regulatory changes, they aren't likely to come true anytime soon.
Coal industry backers point to a few small mountaintop removal jobs that were turned into homes for the new state prison, a high school and an air strip.
But most coal companies plan to leave giant mountaintop removal mines as flattened-out fields, according to a three-month review of state Division of Environmental Protection mining permits.
More than 50 square miles of the state have already been permitted by DEP for mountaintop removal mines that plan pasture, hayfields, forest or range land as their post-mining land use, permit files show.
To date, no mountaintop removal permit ever approved in West Virginia has included plans for a manufacturing plant as a post-mining land use, DEP records show.
The most popular post-mining land use proposed by West Virginia coal operators, and approved by DEP, is "fish and wildlife habitat." That land use, which isn't allowed under current federal reclamation rules, accounts for roughly a third of the total mountaintop removal acreage in the state.
DEP permit files support the allegations of a federal court lawsuit, filed in mid-July, which claims the agency has "established a pattern and practice" of issuing mountaintop removal permits without the required post-mining land use plans.
"Mountaintop mining was supposed to be carefully conducted to benefit local communities and encourage their economic development, but it is destroying them instead," said Joe Lovett, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. "The coal companies are simply taking off mountaintops and dumping them into West Virginia's streams, harming the communities and the environment in the process."
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, agreed that there hasn't been widespread development on mountaintop removal sites. But Raney said it's not the coal industry's fault if new factories don't pop up on old mine sites in isolated places like Mingo, Logan or Boone county.
"Are you going to have a Toyota plant at Wharncliffe, West Virginia?" Raney said. "Probably not. But I don't think the law obligates the mining industry to put up bricks and mortar. Our responsibility is to make sure the opportunity is there."
Congress passed the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, known as SMCRA, in 1977. The law was designed to protect coalfield residents and the environment from the potential ravages of strip mining.
The heart of the law is a requirement that coal operators put strip mined land back the way they found it.
All mine operators are required under the law to return mined land to its approximate original contour, or AOC. In legal terms, companies must reclaim land so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."
Mountaintop removal was to be a limited exception. Operators could chop off entire mountaintops and dump leftover rock and earth into nearby valleys, burying streams.
But under federal law, mountaintop removal was allowed only if mine operators planned to build schools, shopping centers, factories or public parks on the flattened land.
Mine operators could receive AOC variances, and flatten the land, only if they submitted detailed development plans for one of five post-mining land uses: industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential or public facilities.
In May, the Gazette-Mail reported that three-quarters of the active mountaintop removal mines in the state did not receive AOC variances or submit the required post-mining development plans.
Since that report, the newspaper has reviewed thousands of pages of permit documents for more than 75 mountaintop removal mines. Court records that included a separate analysis of 48 permits were also examined. Many of the state's largest mountaintop removal complexes were visited, and industry experts were interviewed.
A host of serious problems was discovered. Among them:
Even when mountaintop removal mines received the required AOC variances, mine operators proposed little in the way of post-mining development.
Thirty-four mines, both active and reclaimed, that received AOC variances were identified. One included a plan for future development. The state built the new Mount Olive state prison on that mountaintop removal site in Fayette County.
OSM has never clearly defined the types of post-mining land uses allowed for mountaintop removal mines to receive AOC variances. State mine permit writers and regulators struggle to figure out what type of development qualifies as the "industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential or public facility" uses included in SMCRA.
"That's where we get in arguments with OSM," said Ed Griffith, assistant chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. "Give me a piece of paper that tells me what it is."
Despite its mandate to ensure state regulators properly enforce the federal strip mining law, OSM never formally reviewed any of the dozens of mountaintop removal permits in West Virginia to make sure the proper land development plans were included.
Some longtime OSM staffers complained for years that mountaintop removal needed more of the agency's attention. But examinations of individual mountaintop removal permits - or even broader permitting trends - has never been included in OSM's annual plans for oversight of the West Virginia DEP.
Only in the last six months, as hundreds of citizens protested against mountaintop removal, has OSM Charleston field office Director Roger Calhoun directed his staff to look at how the state permits the largest surface mines east of the Mississippi River.
A limited OSM study of mountaintop removal, the first such examination by any regulatory agency, is expected to be released later this month.
"We missed this issue," Calhoun said Thursday. "We're tying to get on top of it now."
Arch Coal Inc.'s Dal-Tex mining complex stretches over 6,000 acres along Beech Creek, near Clothier in northeastern Logan County.
On one end of the site, huge shovels and dozers rip apart mountains and bury streams with mine waste. Active Dal-Tex pits produce about 4.4 million tons of coal a year, according to state records.
Over the ridge, alfalfa, yellow clover and blackberry bushes dot green hillsides. Turkey and deer scamper about, and ducks splash around in the wetlands.
This is what coal companies and state regulators call "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands." It's the most popular post-mining land use among companies that operate on mountaintop removal coal mines.
Industry officials say it's an improvement over the forest that was there before. Grasses and bushes create an "edge effect" - flat plains between patches of Appalachian forest - that lures more wildlife, especially game species like turkey and deer, to the area, company officials say.
"In some ways, it is a better landscape than it was before," U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, whose department oversees OSM, said when he toured Arch Coal's Hobet 21 complex in August 1996. "It is a more diverse landscape - a savanna of forests coming back, of fields, of open spaces."
There's just one problem: These mines are illegal. Fish and wildlife is not an approved post-mining land use for mountaintop removal coal mines.
"I can't defend the state on this," said Calhoun of OSM. "That's something that's going to have to be addressed."
DEP permit reviewers have already approved at least 23 mountaintop removal mines that propose fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands as a post-mining land use, according to public records. Those 23 permits covered a total of nearly 11,000 acres, or about 17 square miles.
When the subject of post-mining development comes up, coal industry lobbyists invariably point to the Mount Olive Correctional Complex.
The new state prison, built under former Gov. Gaston Caperton to replace the aging Moundsville Penitentiary, was constructed on a 92-acre mountaintop removal mine in Fayette County.
Cannelton Industries received a permit to mine the site in 1986. Originally, Cannelton proposed to reclaim the site to its original land use, fish and wildlife habitat. In 1990, when the prison project was announced, Cannelton modified its permit to allow a post-mining land use as a public facility, according to DEP records.
Coal industry officials also talk about the Logan Airport.
Starting in 1977, Concord Coal Co. mined a 185-acre mountaintop removal permit near Ethel. Geupel Construction turned the site, which was forest, into a small air strip.
DEP records list the mine as a mountaintop removal operation, but it does not appear that Concord Coal received the required AOC variance.