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Wise, Rahall blast coal permit process

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.

The records show that six of those 11 permits did not request the required AOC variance. Those six mines would strip about 6,000 acres of land, records show.

One of the mines that did not ask for a variance, Arch Coal's application to mine 3,100 acres near Blair in Logan County, would be the largest strip mine in state history. A public hearing on that permit is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at the Sharples Elementary School.

DEP officials have said they regard mountaintop removal mines as meeting the AOC standard because OSM, the federal agency which oversees mine regulation, has not clearly defined the term.

Rahall, who served on the congressional conference committee that wrote the final version of the federal mining law in 1977, did not accept that explanation.

"Clearly, while returning land to its approximate original contour is the general rule, there is a specific exemption for mountaintop removal operations where it can be documented there would be an equal or better economic or public use of the affected land after mining," Rahall said.

"Because the state is not processing the majority of mountaintop removal operations under the AOC variance, it is in turn apparently not requiring this documentation," Rahall said. "As such, there is no assurance that these lands will be used after mining for industrial, commercial, agricultural or residential uses as the laws provide.

"This is inexcusable, and the DEP claiming it does not know exactly what AOC means is no excuse at all."

Wise said, "The law seems pretty clear that you need to get permission for a variance and you need to have a development plan approved for mountaintop removal, and mountaintop removal ought to be adhering to those standards."

Michael Miano, the new director of DEP, defended his agency.

"We will do what the law requires, and it's my understanding that's what we have been doing," Miano said Monday afternoon.

Allen D. Klein, OSM's regional director, said his office will look into the situation.

"You've uncovered some issues, and we'll look at them," Klein said. "We are looking at the data. We're going to have to go to work assessing this situation."


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