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Feds to probe Massey mountaintop mine variance

A.T. Massey Coal Co. says 1,600 acres of Boone County forest will be improved if the company strip mines the land, flattens it out, and turns it into "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands."

West Virginia regulators think this plan qualifies Massey for an exemption to the general requirement that mine operators restore land to its approximate original contour.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining isn't so sure.

When the state Division of Environmental Protection approves the project, probably sometime this week, OSM officials say they will intervene. Local OSM officials have said the permit would be illegal, and national agency officials have ordered an investigation.

"We will look at that permit," said OSM Director Kathy Karpan.

The permit could cause a battle between DEP and OSM over what coal operators must promise in the way of future development to qualify for exemptions that allow a controversial type of mining called mountaintop removal.

Approximate original contour

Under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, coal companies must generally put land that they mine back the way it was before it was mined.

The law states that mines must be reclaimed to their approximate original contour, or AOC. Mines must be reclaimed so that land "closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."

Congress allowed narrow exceptions. Coal companies could ignore the AOC requirements and flatten out the land, if they promised to improve the land with future development, such as factories, schools, shopping malls or public parks.

Federal law allows mountaintop removal AOC variances only when coal companies plan one of five post-mining land uses. They are industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential and public facilities, including "recreational facilities."

Under the law, coal operators may receive a variance only if they propose one of these uses and if that use will constitute an improvement over pre-mining conditions.

In June 1997, Massey subsidiary Independence Coal Co. proposed a new mine, called the Constitution Surface Mine, south of Madison near the town of Uneeda.

The mine, along Hunter Branch and Griffith Branch, would produce about 1.1 million tons of coal a year between January 1999 and July 2004, according to DEP permit files.

'Unmanaged forest land'

In its permit application, Independence Coal says, "The pre-mining capability of the land is limited to unmanaged forest land and wildlife habitat because of the steep slopes and limited access.

"These steep soils are best suited to trees and shrubs rather than agricultural or other uses," the company said. "The inaccessibility of the area promotes a viable habitat for many wildlife species."

Independence asked DEP for an AOC variance for mountaintop removal. This would allow the company not to reclaim the land to its approximate original contour.

Instead of rebuilding the mountains that it removes to reach coal reserves, the company will dump 100 million cubic yards of rock and earth into surrounding hollows and streams.

In its permit application, Independence says the flat land created could be used for a variety of beneficial post-mining land uses. But the company writes off most of those possibilities.

"Because this mining and reclamation plan will produce level areas on the mountaintop and hollow fills, a variety of land uses after reclamation may be possible," the permit application states.

"Soils are generally too poor to provide intensive agricultural or horticultural development, although hay production and grazing has proven successful in many mined lands in the region," it says.

"Commercial or residential development of this property is not considered feasible at this time, but the nearly level land created by this project may present a future opportunity for economic or residential development."

Independence proposed "to reclaim the permit area to wildlife habitat and recreation."

"A diverse vegetative cover will be established, providing habitat, food sources and protective cover for a variety of wildlife," the permit application said. "Over time, native plant species will likely invade the area, adding to species diversity.

"The surrounding area is covered in upland forest. The creation of wildlife habitat on the reclaimed mine site is therefore a viable postmining land use choice."

Post-mining land use

Bill Marcum, a spokesman for Massey Coal, said the company believes its permit application meets the requirements of federal and state law.

"Based on our understanding of the regulations and current state policies, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands meets the requirements of improved or higher land use following mining," Marcum said. "DEP has approved fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands as an appropriate post-mining land use. OSM has approved this, provided there is public access."

The Legislature added "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" as an alternative post-mining land use for mountaintop removal strip mines under state law in 1997.

But federal law does not allow DEP to implement changes in state mining law until they are approved by OSM. In 1994, the state Supreme Court scolded DEP for contending that changes in state mining rules don't have to be approved by OSM before they are implemented.

In April 1997, then-DEP Director John E. Caffrey asked OSM to approve the addition of "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" as a post-mining land use for mountaintop removal mines.

OSM has so far refused to approve the change.

In October 1997, OSM Charleston Field Office Director Roger Calhoun wrote a letter to Caffrey to say that the change might not be allowed. Calhoun wrote that the change would make West Virginia strip mine laws less stringent than federal law requires.

Last month, DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation Chief John Ailes wrote to Calhoun's boss, OSM Regional Director Allen D. Klein to ask that the change be approved.

"Because of the feral nature of wildlife, the proposed program amendment conforms with federal regulations by providing enhanced recreational benefits in the form of additional wildlife for public hunting and observation," Ailes wrote.

"Consequently, if the reclaimed site were made available to the public for recreational purposes, it would qualify for such alternate post-mining land use," he wrote.

"Therefore, this provision is as effective as the federal program for post-mining land uses and recreational benefits."

'Outdoor recreation activities'

Also last month, Independence submitted letters to DEP from the companies that own the land where the Constitution Mine would be.

The companies said they would allow public access to the land after mining is completed "for outdoor recreation activities, such as hunting and fishing, subject to the appropriate waivers of liability, indemnifications and assumptions of risks associated with the use of the surface property."

OSM officials said that is not enough to make the Independence proposal qualify under the "public facilities" post-mining land use for mountaintop removal mines.

According to OSM, that land use would apply to recreation lands only if they are made into public parks or state-run public hunting and fishing areas.

Two weeks ago, DEP backed off issuing the Independence permit because of questions raised by the Sunday Gazette-Mail and in a formal notice of intent to sue filed by environmentalists.

Several days later, Ailes defended the permit.

"There is nothing that we've seen that will deny it," Ailes told The Associated Press. "The matter of fact is it's a pretty good permit."

Last week, Ailes said there may be details about the post-mining land use change that need to be worked out, but his office will probably approve the Independence permit anyway.

"Is there any doubt in my mind about the post-mining land use?" Ailes said. "I think that is in line with what the federal law requires, but I'm not sure our ability to get there is as clear as we'd like it to be."


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