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."
Flattened land is certainly not essential for fish and wildlife habitat. If anything, the reclaimed land is less suitable.
Charleston lawyer Joe Lovett, opposing the new designation on behalf of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, wrote: "It is clear that a post-mining land use must be a socially beneficial, well-planned development that uses land in a higher and better way than it was used before mining took place."
Sadly, few of the active decapitation mines in West Virginia have such uses in the works, despite coal industry promises of a "field of dreams."
Even though it has yet to be approved by OSM, "fish and wildlife habitat" was the most common land use listed in permits that Ward examined. This reflects badly both on the state Division of Environmental Protection and on federal agencies that have been doing a shoddy job of overseeing state regulators.
In passing the 1977 law, Congress intended to allow the destruction of mountaintop removal mining only as part of a social compact in which coal companies left something better behind for communities.
The corporations aren't living up to the bargain, and until now, state and federal regulators have let them get away with it.
OSM would be taking a step in the right direction by refusing this change, and demanding that the state change all permits that received this designation.
"Fish and wildlife habitat and recreation lands" is not a "higher and better" use of the land. Any fool can see that.