A month ago, Royal Scot Minerals Inc. abandoned its coal mine near Anjean in Greenbrier County. The company turned off an electric water treatment system. Acid mine drainage poured into Little Clear Creek, a trout stream that feeds the Meadow River.
State Division of Environmental Protection officials moved quickly. DEP inspectors heard about the problem on April 26, revoked the company's permit the next day, and restarted the water treatment system the day after that.
When Royal Scot received state mining permits, the company posted $3.1 million in reclamation bonds. The Little Clear Creek reclamation may cost $10 million or more, DEP estimates.
The extra $6.9 million is supposed to come from DEP's Special Reclamation Fund, or SRF.
But the fund is broke.
The SRF has $62 million less than what it needs to reclaim the mine sites currently covered by the program, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining's most recent count.
That estimate is nearly 4 years old.
After 1995, OSM stopped publishing SRF deficit estimates in its annual reports.
More recent OSM reports, however, show the problem is getting worse.
Each year, 2 acres of mines are abandoned for every acre the state cleans up with SRF money, according to OSM reports.
For every $1 in bond money the SRF collects, the fund spends $2 on reclamation.
Last week, OSM released a report that shows that, since 1992, the SRF spent an average of $700,000 per year more than it took in.
Last year, coal companies forfeited bonds for 64 mine sites covering 2,176 acres.
The state reclaimed 26 mine sites covering 1,106 acres.
Currently, the SRF has a backlog of more than 260 abandoned mines covering 10,000 acres
"Under current projections, the bond fund will not be sufficient to eliminate the backlog of unreclaimed forfeiture sites for 10 to 20 years without any consideration of other sites added for water treatment," OSM said in a 1997 report.
At least 100 forfeited mine sites have water problems, OSM said.
DEP officials do not publicly admit that there is a problem.
Last week, DEP Director Michael Miano issued a news release to tout the agency's response to the Little Clear Creek problem.
"It's a shame that some people still insist on being reckless toward the environment," Miano said. "I'm glad that we have the resources available and a program set in place to handle such actions."
Miano did not mention the SRF insolvency.
On Friday, Miano said, "I can't speak intelligently about the actuarial situation with that fund. I know we are working with that, and have met on that and discussed how we are going to meet our liabilities.