The OSM report found that the newspaper's investigations were correct.
The report said, for example, that "there is not much difference in the characteristics of mines which have been granted AOC variances and those which are to return the land to AOC.
"Additionally, it was found that many sites identified as returning the mined areas to AOC generated nearly as much excess spoil as the sites with an AOC variance," the OSM report said. "The result is that some mines are held to more restrictive postmining land use criteria that other seemingly comparable mines need not meet."
The OSM report also concluded that at least two post-mining land uses routinely approved by the state - "forestry" and "fish and wildlife habitat" - are not allowed for mountaintop removal mines under federal law.
Taken together, these findings mean that coal companies are being allowed to conduct mountaintop removal without meeting the AOC standard, and without proposing post-mining development plans required to receive variances.
Last week, lawyers for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy added allegations about AOC violations to their federal court lawsuit over DEP's handling of mountaintop removal permits.
The amended complaint alleged that DEP Director Michael Miano "has established a pattern and practice of authorizing permits on the basis of applications that fail to insure that the mine site will be restored to approximate original contour as mandated by" the law and regulations.
"Defendant Miano routinely approves surface mining permits that will not result in reclamation in which the reclaimed areas, including the valley fill areas, closely resemble the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining," the amended complaint stated.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., put the blame for AOC problems squarely on OSM.
"It is ludicrous to observe that operations which have the character of mountaintop removal mining are being permitted both with and without variances from the approximate original contour reclamation requirement, and then not make strong recommendations that some type of distinction should be made between the two," Rahall said last week.
"I do not want to belabor the point, but I was there," said Rahall, who served on a House-Senate conference committee that wrote the final version of SMCRA.
"And it was clear to us that industry believed at the time that it could not engage in mountaintop removal mining without a variance from the reclamation requirement," Rahall said. "That is why we gave it to them."