State regulators have put the brakes on a new A.T. Massey strip mine while they review complaints about the permitting of mountaintop-removal mining.
The permit, for Massey subsidiary Independence Coal Co., was expected to be issued late last week by the state Division of Environmental Protection.
DEP officials delayed it to review questions raised by an environmental group's pending lawsuit and by a Charleston Gazette investigation.
John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, backed off from issuing the permit following a meeting Thursday with new agency Director Michael Miano.
"We're still reviewing it," Ailes said.
Independence Coal wants to strip-mine about 1,600 acres along Griffith and Hunter Branch near Uneeda, south of Madison in Boone County. The operation would be called the Constitution Surface Mine.
The mountaintop-removal mine would produce about 1.1 million tons of coal for more than 15 years, starting in January 1999, according to records on file at the DEP offices in Nitro.
Huge shovels and dozers would move nearly 300 million cubic yards of earth and rocks to reach valuable low-sulfur coal reserves.
Independence would put about 200 million cubic yards of that material back on mountaintops. The other 100 million would go into seven valley fills, according to the company's permit application. In some spots, the mine would cut more than 200 feet off the tops of mountains, fill up adjacent valleys and generally level off the land.
Under federal law, mountaintop-removal mines can be exempted from the requirement that strip-mine operators reclaim land to its approximate original contour, or so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."
To qualify for such variances, operators must show that the flattened land will be improved with future development of industrial, commercial, agricultural or public facilities.
Mountaintop removal has become more popular among mine operators as strip mining has boomed in the state.
Last year, more than two-thirds of the area permitted for new strip mining was for mountaintop removal. In 1997, DEP approved 20 new mountaintop-removal mines that cover 27 square miles.
A Gazette report published on Sunday found that DEP officials have permitted most mountaintop-removal mines without requiring them to obtain a variance.
Of 81 active mountaintop-removal mines approved for West Virginia since 1978, only 20 were granted variances, according to DEP records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
By permitting mountaintop-removal mines without variances, the DEP has not required mine operators to prove that flattening the land will improve it.
DEP officials say the approximate-original-contour definition is so vague that it can't be enforced very well. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has refused to provide states with a more concrete definition.