"I sort of look at it like an insurance company and I guess if every policy claim that could possibly be made came due at once, no insurance company could handle that."
In 1991, OSM ordered DEP to submit a plan by December 1995 to fix the SRF.
OSM said the state must come up with a way to "eliminate the deficit in the [SRF] and to ensure that sufficient money will be available to complete reclamation, including the treatment of polluted water, at all existing and future bond forfeiture sites."
DEP has never submitted that plan. OSM has done little to force the state to take action.
Roger Calhoun, director of the OSM Charleston field office, said, "I don't think it's that we have done nothing. There has been progress in trying to develop that plan.
"We're going to have to develop some comprehensive solutions," Calhoun said. "There is not an easy fix."
The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires companies to post reclamation bonds in order to obtain mining permits.
The bonds are supposed to pay for reclamation if the companies go belly up or just walk away from a mine.
Mines that were abandoned before August 1977, when the law took effect, are cleaned up with a pool of money from coal production taxes.
If a coal company abandons a mine after August 1977, and the bond won't cover reclamation costs, the SRF is supposed to step in. The SRF is funded by (1) forfeited reclamation bonds, (2) a separate per-ton coal tax, and (3) interest on those funds.
Ten years ago, OSM first warned the state the SRF had problems.
A 1989 annual OSM report said the state was mistakenly assuming it cost $1,000 per acre - or the amount companies posted in bonds - to clean up abandoned mines. At the time, it cost $2,000 an acre to reclaim a mine. So, the state SRF had $2.4 million less than it needed to reclaim mines covered by the program, OSM said.
Since 1989, OSM has annually warned state regulators that the SRF is underfunded.
In the last few years, DEP has made some improvements.
The Legislature allowed site-specific bonding: Mines with larger potential pollution problems would have to post larger bonds. But bonds were capped at $5,000 an acre. It can cost tens of millions of dollars to reclaim a few-acre mine site with acid drainage problems.
Lawmakers also increased the per-ton SRF coal tax, from 1 cent to 3 cents. But OSM said the money coming in is still not enough.
Last year, OSM and DEP formed a team to evaluate the SRF. The team has studied, written reports, held meetings and taken no action.
The matter may end up in court.
In April 1998, the Highlands Conservancy threatened to sue the DEP over the SRF.