WHEN coal companies don't return strip-mined mountains to something resembling their original shape, the firms are supposed to get a "variance" from state environmental officials, which requires concrete plans for improved use of the land when the coal is gone.
But reporter Ken Ward Jr. found that most active mountaintop-removal sites in the state didn't receive that variance. And even those that did get it didn't have the detailed development plans required by the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has put together a draft report essentially confirming Ward's findings.
Currently, OSM is deciding whether to grant a state request to approve "fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" as a post-mining use.
OSM officials need to ask a couple of questions: First, is it really a "higher and better" use to take forested mountaintops and streams - which are home to a wide variety of fish and wildlife - and flatten them to create an artificial plateau for deer, turkey and wild boars?
Second, as OSM officials stated in their draft report: "Applicants requesting variances from AOC approximate original contour ... must demonstrate that the flat or gently rolling terrain is essential to support specific post-mining land uses" (emphasis added).
We don't see how the proposed fish and wildlife designation meets either of these criteria. Wildlife biologists who talked with a Charleston Daily Mail reporter confirmed what common sense would tell most people: Reclaimed land doesn't support as wide a variety of plants and animals as the undisturbed land did before it.
Gary Sharp, a biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources said: "To say that mountaintop removal is good for wildlife, that's not true."