Coal operators await state approval to bury more than 50 miles of West Virginia streams with strip mine waste, according to new data from the state Division of Environmental Protection.
Twenty-one pending mountaintop removal coal mine permits propose at least 90 new valley fills in 11 counties, according to DEP permit records reviewed this week.
Those fills would bury dozens of streams with millions of tons of rock and earth blasted from mountaintops to uncover valuable coal seams.
At least 50.9 miles of streams would be buried if those 21 permits for large surface mines are approved by the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation.
The only thing standing in the way of the permits' approval is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Long-term environmental effects
No one knows what the long-term environmental effects on downstream waterways, surrounding forests or wildlife would be.
EPA has temporarily blocked the state from issuing water pollution permits for three mountaintop removal permits. Agency officials say they may halt any other mountaintop removal permits as well.
Under federal mining and environmental laws, permits are not supposed to be issued if regulators don't understand the full scope of environmental effects the mining could cause. If regulators don't know the impacts, the theory goes, they can't force coal companies to take steps to avoid or limit them.
Old-time strip mining chipped coal off the sides of hills. Mountaintop removal mining blasts off hilltops to reveal coal veins. Leftover rock and earth are dumped in nearby valleys and streams in waste piles called valley fills.
A report issued in September by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 470 miles of West Virginia streams have been buried or proposed to be buried by valley fills since 1986.
Both the 470-mile figure for approved permits and the 50-mile figure for pending permit applications probably underestimate the amount of streams destroyed by valley fills.
In coming up with its figure, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted valley fills only for permits issued from the DEP Logan regional office. That office covers the coal-producing counties of Logan, Lincoln, Boone, Wayne and Mingo.
Valley fills are also burying streams in other DEP regions, especially the Oak Hill region, which includes part of the Kanawha River watershed.
The 50-mile figure for pending permit applications does not include valley fills for several large, proposed mining operations.
Until recently, DEP didn't keep a running count of valley fill numbers or sizes.
Data on valley fill lengths, released to The Charleston Gazette on Thursday, did not include a 1,400-acre permit proposed by Elk Run Coal Co. or a 1,200-acre permit proposed by Battle Ridge Companies.
DEP also complicates the issue by calling some mines "area mines" and others "mountaintop removal mines." The environmental impacts of area mining and mountaintop removal are largely the same.