On Monday two West Virginia congressmen criticized the way state regulators have issued dozens of permits for huge mountaintop removal strip mines.
Rep Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., called the actions by the state Division of Environmental Protection and the federal Office of Surface Mining "inexcusable."
Rep. Bob Wise, also D-W.Va., said he would write to Kathy Karpan, director of OSM, asking her to investigate the matter.
Rahall and Wise spoke in response to a Charleston Gazette report that most mountaintop removal mines permitted by the state Division of Environmental Protection did not receive variances required by state and federal law.
"This is not a case of whether you are for or against mountaintop removal operations," Rahall said. "This is a matter of whether or not there has been compliance with federal law as it relates to how permits for these types of operations are reviewed and granted."
"It's an issue that needs to be looked at fully," Wise added. "Mountaintop removal ought to be done properly. Not enforcing the standards that exist just leads to more and more problems."
Congress passed the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to require coal operators to put land back, as best they could, the way it was before they mined it.
Under the law's "approximate original contour" or AOC rule, operators must reclaim mined land so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."
The law allows narrow exemptions for mountaintop removal mining or for mining on slopes steeper than 20 degrees. But to qualify for those AOC variances, operators must show that flattening the land will improve it by allowing for future development.
A three-month Gazette investigation found that three-quarters of the mountaintop removal mines in the state did not receive AOC variances.
Sixty-one of 81 active mountaintop removal mines approved since 1978 did not receive the variances. Last year, 15 of 20 mountaintop removal mines did not receive variances.
Rather than go to the time and expense of rebuilding mountains or planning future development, coal operators in many cases are simply dumping millions of tons of rock and earth - removed to reach coal seams - into neighboring streams and hollows.
DEP records reviewed on Friday and Monday show that there are 11 pending applications for mountaintop removal operations in the state. Those mines cover more than 13,000 acres, or more than 20 square miles.