Federal regulators have decided there are widespread problems with the way huge mountaintop removal coal mines are permitted in West Virginia.
Inspectors from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining say coal operators are "indiscriminately dumping" waste rock and earth into valleys because it is easier and cheaper than rebuilding hilltops.
OSM also confirmed that, for more than 20 years, mountaintop removal mines have been illegally permitted by the state without plans for developing the stripped land.
A 130-page draft of a much-anticipated OSM report also states that the lack of concrete "approximate original contour" guidelines has allowed mine operators to dump more dirt and rock into valley fills that bury streams.
Approximate original contour law entails putting a mountain back much the same way a coal company found it unless there is some immediate call for a flattened mountaintop.
OSM concluded that the state Division of Environmental Protection needs to strengthen the state mining law to match stronger federal requirements, consider wholesale changes in the way large surface mines are permitted, and review hundreds of permits to fix various illegal provisions.
On what insiders say is the most crucial issue - how to define approximate original contour, or AOC - OSM hedged. The agency said it would probably take no action and leave it up to DEP to come up with tighter AOC rules.
"Some sites meeting AOC ... show a significant loss of elevation," the draft report states. "OSM is suggesting WVDEP develop guidelines for AOC, particularly for large operations where the AOC decision becomes critical to the allowance of the mining method and post-mining land use."
OSM Charleston field office Director Roger Calhoun launched the study earlier this year in response to citizen protests about mountaintop removal and following national and local media reports of industry abuses.
The agency's original agreement with DEP called for the report to be issued in its final form by Aug. 15.
Allen Klein, OSM's regional director in Pittsburgh, said last week the public release would be delayed until September. Klein did not give a reason. A draft copy was recently obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
Under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, coal operators must reclaim their strip mines to their approximate original contour, or so it "closely resembles the general surface configuration" of the land before mining.
Mountaintop removal mining is different from old-time strip mining. Giant earth-moving machines shave off entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into waste piles, called valley fills, burying miles of streams.
Under the law, mountaintop removal was meant to be a limited exception. Mining companies could ignore AOC, and flatten out the land, only if they submitted concrete plans to build schools, factories, public parks or other developments. To qualify, mine operators must show that flat land is essential for the post-mining developments they propose.
In recent months, OSM officials have downplayed criticism from environmental groups that the state DEP illegally issues mountaintop removal permits that violate the 1977 law, and that OSM hasn't monitored the state's actions closely enough.
The findings of the federal agency's study, however, back up those critics.
In its six-month study, OSM examined permit files and conducted field inspections for 19 mountaintop removal and other large-scale surface coal mines in Southern West Virginia.
Eight of those 19 permits received AOC variances.
OSM investigators found that only three of those eight permits contained post-mining land uses which are allowed for mountaintop removal mines.
Four of the other five improper permits called for post-mining land uses of fish and wildlife habitat or range land, neither of which is allowed for mountaintop removal mines.