Federal strip mine regulators have again delayed the release of what is expected to be a landmark report on mountaintop removal coal mining.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining planned to issue the report on Friday, but agency Director Kathy Karpan delayed the release for at least two weeks.
OSM officials said the report was held so that it can be reviewed by John D. Leshy, the top lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior. OSM is part of the department.
Top OSM officials also said last week that even when the report is publicly released, it won't be in its final version.
Margy White, Karpan's chief of staff, said OSM plans to put a draft of the report out for public comment before publishing a final report with conclusions and recommendations.
This is believed to be the first time that the Interior Department's Office of Solicitor has intervened in the drafting of an OSM oversight report.
It is also the first time that OSM has decided to schedule a public comment period on such a report.
"I guess you could call it unusual," White said Thursday.
Unlike old-time strip mining, mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to reach coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth, known as spoil, are dumped into nearby valleys and streams.
Mountaintop removal mines cover tens of thousands of acres in Southern West Virginia, and have drawn intense scrutiny in the past year from environmental groups and the national media.
After mostly ignoring the issue for years, OSM in February launched an investigation of mountaintop removal mine permitting.
A draft of the agency study, obtained last month, concluded that the state Division of Environmental Protection has allowed mining operators to receive permits without restoring mines to their approximate original contour or submitting plans for post-mining developments.
Among other things, the draft report said regulators needed to define more clearly the approximate original contour and stop mine operators from receiving permits that state "fish and wildlife habitat" as a post-mining land improvement.
Mountaintop removal critics have been anxiously awaiting the final report in the hopes that it will continue to back the arguments made in a federal court lawsuit to curb the mining practice.
The report is also important because it will chart the course OSM will follow in either allowing mountaintop removal to continue at an unprecedented pace or reining in the giant mining operations.
Originally, OSM's formal work plan for the study called for the report to be released by Aug. 15.
After numerous unexplained delays, OSM officials had said privately that they planned to issue the final report on Friday. That never happened.
Allen Klein, OSM's Appalachian regional director, said last week the report was going through additional review by the Solicitor of Interior.
"They're looking at the report overall," Klein said. "We're doing our best, and we don't want to release a report that isn't ready."