Every year, the state Division of Environmental Protection fines coal operators an average of $5.2 million for violating strip mine laws.
But the agency only collects $1.2 million of that money. Every year, an average of more than $4 million is not collected.
The DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation collects just 22 percent of the money it fines coal companies, according to an analysis of agency records.
Civil penalty money is supposed to go into the state Special Reclamation Fund, and be used to clean up mines abandoned over the last 20 years.
But over the last 10 years, DEP has built up a $42 million pile of uncollected civil penalties, agency records show.
These unpaid penalties have helped create an unfunded liability of more than $62 million in the state's reclamation fund. More than 260 abandoned mine sites, covering 10,000 acres, are waiting to be reclaimed.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining, charged with overseeing DEP, has never conducted a review of the civil penalty collection problem or ordered DEP to do anything to improve its collections.
Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston OSM field office, said he can't explain the problem.
"I don't know what to tell you until I go back and review it," Calhoun said last week.
Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said, "It's amazing to me that no one in an oversight position has picked up on that or considered it important."
The 1977 federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act requires coal companies to reclaim land that they strip mine.
Under the law, operators must also post bond money that can be used by the state DEP to reclaim mines if coal companies go belly up. Forfeited bond money goes into the Special Reclamation Fund, or SRF. The SRF is also funded by civil penalties, a tax on coal production, and interest on those funds.
Starting in 1989, OSM warned the state in annual oversight reports that the SRF had problems.
The most recent estimate, published by OSM in 1995, showed the fund had $62 million less than what it needs to reclaim the mine sites currently covered by the program.
For the last three years, OSM and DEP officials have studied the SRF to try to come up with solutions for its financial problems.