Federal regulators said that if West Virginia wanted to add woodlands as a mountaintop removal post-mining land use, state officials had to prove flat land was needed for timbering.
Three months later, in December 1980, West Virginia regulators tried to do just that.
State Deputy Attorney General Dennis M. Abrams sent OSM a report on the issue from then-state Forester Asher W. Kelly Jr. Kelly's two-page memo, however, was far from a ringing endorsement.
"It is generally recognized that road building and skidding costs are lower for level ground than on sloping ground," Kelly wrote. "However, potential down time exists because of the difficulty in draining roads on flat land. The cost of managing and operating tracts on both sites are nearly equal."
Kelly also wrote, "By far, the most important advantage of commercial woodland operations on flat land is the reduced danger of erosion and sedimentation.
"The economic advantages are not dramatically different between flat and sloping land," Kelly added. "However, careful preplanning at the outset could result in significant savings during management and harvest phases on areas resulting from mountaintop removal."
Environmentalists urged OSM not to approve the change.
"Operators do not need flat land to grow trees," a group called Citizens for Environmental Protection said in written comments.
"West Virginia does not need additional "woodlands." The risk of massive slides and uncorrectable pollution problems will be with us for the next 100 years unless this provision is changed."
Just three weeks later, OSM approved the change.
In a Jan. 21, 1981, Federal Register notice, OSM wrote that, "although there would be no across-the-board need for flat areas for silviculture, there might in a specific case be special circumstances which would make flat land essential."
Mountaintop removal permits approved by the state, however, contain little in the way of site-specific proof that flat land is essential for the timbering post-mining land uses those permits propose.
Most of the permits contain boilerplate statements. These concede that the proposed post-mining land use "is not substantially different from the pre-mining land use," but state that "the flat or gently rolling terrain will enhance stability of the land surface and greatly facilitate timber harvest by eliminating the need for hillside roads with their associated cost and environmental damage."
None of the permits for forest land or commercial woodlands post-mining land use contained any site-specific economic data to show that flat land was needed.
Privately, OSM officials say they never should have allowed West Virginia to expand its rules to include commercial woodland as a mountaintop removal post-mining land use.
Publicly, OSM Charleston field office Director Roger Calhoun says he has no plans to do anything about it.
"It's not an issue that we're currently planning to look at," Calhoun said. "It was approved as part of the state program, and there was no litigation.
"If it was causing some global problem, we might go back and look at it."