ABSURDLY, state Environmental Protection Director Michael Miano contends that changing the elevation of a mountain by 400 feet somehow qualifies as restoring it to the "approximate original contour" required by law.
You see, federal law requires that strip-mined land be returned to its approximate original contour (AOC) after the coal is removed. Most professionals say that's virtually impossible with mountaintop removal mining. If it can't be done, firms must get a variance, which requires specific plans for productive use of the flattened land.
It's a social compact, really, that Congress made with coalfield communities. Congress agreed to allow this extremely destructive form of mining in exchange for assurances from the mining companies that there would be something left for the communities afterward.
But when state regulators accept absurd standards for approximate original contour, they allow mining companies to abdicate their part of the deal. The firms and the regulators pretend that AOC is being achieved, which means that the companies needn't draft detailed plans for postmining land use.
Three-quarters of West Virginia's mountaintop-removal mining permits were issued without the AOC variance. But state Division of Environmental Protection officials claim that the permits aren't illegal because the land will be restored to an acceptable approximate original contour, although there is no real standard defining that.
In a meeting with Gazette editors, Miano said he doesn't see the need for a more defined AOC standard, although some in DEP would like to go back to the 50-foot rule formerly used. Under that rule, only changes in elevation of less than 50 feet were considered to meet AOC requirements.
Miano would rather give his permit writers "discretion." But those in charge of permitting want guidelines, which seems reasonable to us.
"'Closely resembles the general surface consideration' - who the hell knows what that means?" John Ailes, chief of DEP's Office of Mining and Reclamation, asked Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr.
"What's AOC to you might not be AOC to me. That is truly difficult for the agency. We're forced to make these interpretations without any guidance."
Instead of pressing for guidelines, Miano is waiting for lawsuits to force his agency's hand.
If the 50-foot rule were restored, mountaintop removal mines couldn't leave West Virginia's skyline so permanently marred. Coal companies would be required to have detailed plans for making good use of land on mines which couldn't meet this requirement.
Since Miano won't demand that rule, he obviously wants to let coal companies make worse decapitations and pretend that they're restoring the crests.
This is one more reason why he should be removed as the state's official protector of nature.