West Virginia isn't the only state where huge mountaintop-removal coal mines have been improperly permitted, according to a newspaper report.
Many mountaintop-removal operations in Kentucky were permitted without the proper post-mining land development plans, according to a study by The Courier-Journal of Louisville.
The report contradicts statements of Kentucky regulators, who have bragged that their state had only two mountaintop-removal mines and few complaints about them.
The Courier-Journal article, published Tuesday also reported that federal regulators are starting to take a hard look at mines in Kentucky.
Coal industry officials in West Virginia have complained they are facing more scrutiny than their competitors in Kentucky.
"It just confirms what everyone has said - that this is a widespread problem that federal and state agencies have let slide for a long time," said Cindy Rank, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
"And now, it's gotten so big that the damage is hard to ignore," Rank said.
The lengthy Courier-Journal article noted that under federal strip mine law, mine operators must generally return mined land to its approximate original contour. They can ignore that requirement, and flatten land, only if they promise to improve it with development such as factories, shopping malls or schools.
But the Courier-Journal searched Kentucky state mining permits and found many mountaintop-removal mines rarely provide any post-mining development.
"The law allows such dramatic change only if operators prove that the flattened land will serve a better purpose - such as an airport, a factory or public park," the newspaper said. "But this provision is rarely enforced, and most mountaintop mines are eventually left as grassy fields."
The Courier-Journal conducted a computer analysis of Kentucky mining permits and found that 20 of the state's 45 active mountaintop-removal mines propose "fish and wildlife habitat" as their post-mining land use. That land use isn't allowed by federal law for mountaintop-removal mines.
The article suggested that Kentucky has, since 1978, permitted more mountaintop-removal mines than West Virginia.
Over the last 20 years, Kentucky has granted 367 mountaintop-removal permits.
West Virginia has granted at least 134 such permits. But because of poor record-keeping, the state has been able to identify only about half of the permitted mountaintop-removal mines.