ANJEAN - Roger Green walked to the edge of a bright orange pond and pointed at a small rubber hose.
A milky-white ammonia mixture trickled from the hose into the pond.
Water from the pond drained downhill into a series of other ponds, where more chemicals were added.
Through this process, toxic acid mine drainage is neutralized. Iron, manganese and other nasty chemicals are cleansed from the pond water.
A muddy sludge of coal waste settles to the bottom of the ponds.
Eventually, clean water makes its way into nearby Little Clear Creek, a popular Greenbrier County trout stream that feeds the Meadow River.
Green and his two-man Department of Environmental Protection crew spend more than $220,000 a year to make sure Little Clear Creek lives up to its name.
"If we don't do our job, the trout die, and the trout aren't dying," Green said.
Green and the DEP shouldn't have to do this.
Leckie Smokeless Coal Co. was supposed to reclaim the site. But in 1993, Leckie Smokeless went bankrupt. In 1999, so did Royal Scot Minerals, which bought the operation out of bankruptcy.
Today, the 400-acre site north of Rupert is among hundreds of abandoned mines that scar the West Virginia hills.
No one is really sure how many of these mines the state will have to reclaim, or how much the work will eventually cost.
Last year, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining reported that at least 15,000 acres of abandoned mines across the state's coalfields sit unreclaimed.
Dozens - perhaps even hundreds - of other sites are expected to end up on the abandoned list sooner or later, state and federal officials fear.
At many of these sites, a toxic stew of untreated mine runoff poisons streams.
Statewide, only five of the more than 200 sites with polluted water are being treated.
One OSM report, published in August 2000, estimated the total cost of water treatment alone would run anywhere between $2.6 billion and $6.3 billion over the next 50 years. The state has nowhere near that much money in its mine cleanup fund. Unless there are dramatic reforms, there is no way that much will ever be collected.
"This is our biggest environmental concern today," said Michael O. Callaghan, the Wise administration's DEP secretary.
In October 1991, OSM officials ordered the state to come up with a plan to fully fund these mine cleanups. The state never did.
Last week, Callaghan announced an agreement with the coal industry to increase current reclamation taxes to clean up the abandoned sites.
The deal would generate about $23 million a year.
But OSM consultants estimate that the state needs at least $53 million a year just to pay for water treatment at abandoned mine sites.
The total cost could be much higher. If coal companies abandoned huge mountaintop removal sites, for example, the land reclamation alone could cost $50 million for just one site, according to court documents.
No one has done a definitive study to find out the total long-term price tag.
In federal court in Charleston, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy wants Chief U.S. Judge Charles H. Haden II to force the state's hand. Haden is considering a motion by conservancy lawyers to force OSM to take over the state's abandoned mine reclamation program.
'Alternative bonding' In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act, or SMCRA. Under the law, states are allowed to regulate their own coal mining industries. Congress created OSM to make sure that states force mine operators in their states to comply with SMCRA. Among other things, SMCRA requires states to make coal companies post reclamation bonds before they receive new mining permits. The idea was to make sure that mines abandoned after 1977 were cleaned up properly.
Older mines that were abandoned before 1977 are cleaned up with a separate pool of money from a federal coal production tax.
Under federal rules, states may adopt two types of bonding systems.
Under one type of bonding, coal companies must post bonds that would cover the full cost of reclaiming their mine sites.
If companies go belly up, they forfeit their bond money. States use the money to clean up the mine sites.
Under the second type, coal company bonds do not have to cover the full reclamation costs. Companies can post much smaller bonds. But state regulators must maintain enough money in a bond fund to reclaim any sites that companies abandon.
In West Virginia, the DEP uses the second type of bonding plan. This is known as an "alternative bonding" system.
Bonds are capped at $5,000 per acre. This amount often doesn't cover the entire cost to reclaim an abandoned mine site. So all coal companies pay a small tax that is supposed to provide enough additional money to reclaim sites where the bond wasn't sufficient.
At least that's the way it was supposed to work.
'Think Reclamation' On Feb. 16, 1972, the old state Department of Natural Resources approved a permit for Leckie Smokeless Coal Co.
The permit certificate is still in the files at DEP headquarters in Nitro. It boasts the DNR Division of Reclamation's motto at the time: "Think Reclamation." Under the permit, Leckie Smokeless could mine 400 acres of land along Little Clear Creek northwest of Lewisburg. The company planned to mine the Beckley and Fire Creek coal seams.
Following the rules of the time, Leckie Smokeless posted a $750-per-acre reclamation bond, or a total of $300,000.
In its permit approval, DNR officials concluded that they "do not expect to encounter acid or toxic material" during the mining.
DEP records don't show how much coal Leckie Smokeless mined, or how much money the company made.
But by 1993, Leckie Smokeless had filed for bankruptcy.
Initially, DEP officials tried to make the bankrupt company post a greater bond if it wanted its permit renewed. State mining rules had changed, and larger bonds were required now, the agency said.
Company lawyers argued that wasn't fair. She said Leckie Smokeless should only have to follow the rules as they were written back in 1972, when its permit was approved.
DEP backed down, and agreed to renew the permit without an additional bond payment.
No conclusive studies In West Virginia, OSM gave the state conditional approval to regulate its own mining industry in January 1981.
But OSM officials said at the time that the approval was conditioned upon the state doing a study to show that the reclamation fund was adequate.
Such a study has never been submitted.
Instead, in 1982, West Virginia gave OSM what state officials at the time called a "preliminary study." In March 1983, OSM said that study was good enough.
Three years later, in 1986, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that the preliminary study was practically worthless.
"The state's submission admitted that much of the data needed to make a conclusive study did not exist," the GAO said. "A final actuarial study of the fund was not made." In 1991, the Interior Department's inspector general reported that the state did not have adequate accounting policies for the bond fund.
State balance sheets showed that the fund had a surplus. The inspector general found that it actually had a deficit. The IG also noted that the fund had not "been previously audited by an independent accounting firm or a state auditor." 'Some sort of scam' By 1995, state inspectors had found major water quality problems at the Leckie Smokeless mine site. In 1993 and 1994, the company had been cited repeatedly for polluting streams beyond the legal limits.
Company officials signed consent agreements to resolve the violations.
They agreed to treat acid mine drainage that poured off the site, so that area streams wouldn't be polluted.
About that time, a company called Royal Scot Minerals bought the Anjean operations out of bankruptcy. Royal Scot was part of a British conglomerate, Rackwood Mineral Holdings PLC. But in April 1999, Royal Scot just walked away from the site.
DEP officials stepped in to continue water treatment. They wanted to keep acid mine drainage out of Little Clear Creek.
A handful of Royal Scot employees hung around, said Ed Griffith, assistant chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. DEP officials found one of the workers on the site, using a bucket and ladle to put treatment chemicals into a pond, Griffith said.
"You should have been around the night we got the call from the guys up there saying, 'The Englishmen are pulling out tonight,'" Griffith recalled last month.
Today, DEP officials know that Royal Scot wasn't really interested in mining much coal. "The whole thing was some sort of tax scam or investment scam," Griffith alleged.
But at the time, agency officials approved the permit transfer from bankrupt Leckie Smokeless. The move allowed them to increase bond amounts on the site.
"It's a shame that some people insist on being reckless toward the environment," Michael P. Miano, DEP director at the time, said in a May 1999 news release that announced the agency's action to take over the Royal Scot site.