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Editorial: Mountaintops

NONE of the government watchdogs who are supposed to be protecting West Virginia and its people from environmental ravages are doing a stand-up job when it comes to mountaintop removal mining.

The state Division of Environmental Protection is permitting huge decapitation mines without the proper variances that are supposed to ensure that "restored" land will be put to better use if it is not brought back to its "approximate original contour," as federal law requires.

In fact, reporter Ken Ward Jr. found that three-fourths of the state's mountaintop removal operations - 61 of 81 - were not granted the required exemption, in violation of U.S. law.

But the federal Office of Surface Mining isn't doing its job either, which is to ensure that state permitters follow the rules. In a recent discussion, local OSM officials admitted they hadn't been examining state permits.

In fact, that discussion left the disturbing impression that reporter Ward knew more about how state regulators were operating than the federal regulators who are supposed to be watching over them.

The law says permits mustn't be issued until the cumulative impact of the mining and reclamation on water quality and availability is known. That's not being done. No one knows what impact the huge valley fills that mountaintop removal mining creates will have on water quality. Regulators have admitted this.

But permits keep getting issued, making West Virginia one big experiment. If the consequences are bad, it is the people who will suffer, not the huge out-of-state coal corporations that make millions of dollars from the coal.

Rep. Nick Rahall called the regulators' action (and inaction) "inexcusable."

"This is not a case of whether you are for or against mountaintop removal operations," Rahall said of the lack of variances on many permits. "This is a matter of whether or not there has been compliance with federal law as it relates to how permits for these types of operations are reviewed and granted."

The lack of variances is important, not just a technical issue. The law says that the variances can be issued only if coal companies document that the land will be put to equal or better economic or public use after the mountaintop is leveled and the "spoil" is dumped in nearby valleys.

By skipping the variances, state regulators also fail to require the documentation, meaning that companies aren't required to have plans for the land after the coal is gone.

Ward's story prompted a delay in a permit for a huge new A.T. Massey strip mine, and spurred one OSM official to promise to look into the situation.

But Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's Charleston office, doesn't inspire much confidence. "This is not the biggest environmental issue in the state," Calhoun said. "I have other things to do."

Well, his office allowed 61 West Virginia mountains to be decapitated in violation of federal law. What "other things" are more important than enforcing this law?

Sounds like Calhoun and other state and federal regulators need to get their priorities straight. Perhaps a pending lawsuit and pressure from West Virginia's congressional delegation will remind Calhoun of his obligations.


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