A long-awaited federal study of mountaintop removal coal mining has left unanswered what many experts believe is the most important question about the controversial practice:
How does the federal law's "approximate original contour" reclamation requirement apply to huge mines that literally level Appalachian hills and hollows?
In its inch-thick report, released Dec. 8, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining dodged the question.
Report authors wrote that, in West Virginia, the AOC rules are "either applied inconsistently or are overly broad."
OSM, however, declined to offer concrete suggestions on fixing the problem. The agency said it didn't want to write a more detailed definition of AOC, as state regulators and environmentalists had suggested. Instead, OSM put the issue out for still more public comment.
"Because mountaintop removal operations also exist in surrounding states in the region, OSM invites comments on whether it should issue further guidance on AOC as it relates to mountaintop removal operations throughout the region," the agency's report said.
"Finally, OSM also invites comments on whether, if further guidance is deemed appropriate, it should be developed through a formal rulemaking amending OSM's regulations, or through other measures, such as a policy statement or an amendment to the West Virginia program," the report said.
OSM Director Kathy Karpan has refused to answer questions about her agency's report.
Mountaintop removal mining is different from old-time strip mines that peeled coal off the sides of hills.
Mountaintop removal blasts off entire hilltops to reach valuable low-sulfur coal seams underneath. Leftover rock and earth is dumped into valleys and hollows, burying streams.
The AOC rule is the heart of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It requires coal operators to return land the way they found it before mining. Under AOC, most strip mines must be reclaimed so they resemble "the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining."
When Congress passed SMCRA, lawmakers allowed mountaintop removal as an exception.
Coal operators could ignore AOC, and flatten out the land. But they could only do so if the flattened or gently rolling land was needed for post-mining development of schools, factories, shopping malls, or public parks. To qualify for AOC variances, coal companies had to submit concrete development plans.
A series of Gazette articles published earlier this year found that the state Division of Environmental Protection has not required most coal companies to get AOC variances or submit required post-mining development plans.