Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, contends that the federal law doesn't obligate coal companies to develop the flattened sites, but merely "to make sure the opportunity is there."
Raney is wrong. SMCRA is specific about the obligation of permit-holders. Before a variance can be granted, the coal company must show (1) a need and market for the proposed post-mining use, (2) that appropriate agencies have committed to making the necessary public investments, and (3) that the development is "practicable with respect to private financial capability for completion of the proposed use."
In addition, the coal company is supposed to attach a timetable to the reclamation plan, to integrate ongoing mining and reclamation with the post-mining land use.
Such detailed plans, even on those mountaintop sites that get the required variances, are rarely - if ever - included with permit applications, despite the legal requirement. That's because state and federal regulators fell down on the job.
As Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "OSM has been out to lunch." Only recently has public pressure convinced the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to take a closer look at the state program.
Moreover, instead of developments providing jobs, housing or recreation, most post-mining plans say the terrain will be used for hay-growing, pasture, rangeland or fish and wildlife habitat.
SMCRA was supposed to be a social compact between the coal industry and coalfield residents. In exchange for being allowed an environmentally devastating form of mining, industry was supposed to leave something better behind for the communities.
Mountaintop removal mines may be "fields of dreams" for out-of-state coal executives who line their pockets with profits from this most economical form of mining.
But this is the stuff of nightmares for West Virginians whose wells are ruined and whose foundations are cracked by the blasting, for communities choked with dust and pounded by rocks, and for mountaineers who watch their beloved hills lose their wild beauty.
Worse, West Virginians are left with little to show as coal companies fail to live up to their part of the bargain, and regulators let them get away with it.