Coal operators may soon have to rebuild more of the hilltops that mountaintop removal mining tears down.
Federal and state regulators on Tuesday announced a new policy they said would limit the amount of waste rock and earth dumped into valleys and streams.
Kathy Karpan, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, said the policy would more tightly define what constitutes meeting the federal "approximate original contour," or AOC, reclamation standard.
In a news release, Karpan said that decision had previously been left to individual permit review engineers and that the new policy "will be a tool for use by both permit reviewers and applicants."
After Karpan issued her statement, the state Division of Environmental Protection released a 26-page draft of the policy that included engineering formulas and diagrams.
According to the document, under the proposal, operators will have to pile most of the rock and earth they blast or dig up back onto the hilltops they mine.
The only material that could be dumped into valley fills would be that which can't be placed back on hilltops because of rules on stability, drainage or sediment control, and access and maintenance of mined areas.
"In years past, there has been good AOC, and some other things that we have questioned," said Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston OSM field office. "This will be a better approach."
Lewis Halstead, assistant chief for permitting at the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, said, "It's going to lessen valley fills and make AOC more consistent and objective throughout our agency."
The 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act generally requires all strip mines to be restored to the approximate original contour.
Under the law, AOC is defined as reclaiming a mine site "so that the reclaimed area ... closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining and blends into and complements the drainage pattern of the surrounding terrain."
Mountaintop removal mines are supposed to be an exception to the AOC rule.