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Editorial: Mountaintop I

WE DOUBTED that anything good would come of the months-long delay of a report by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining that examined West Virginia's regulation of mountaintop removal mining. And nothing did.

A strong draft of the report was finished in early August. But in the final draft released this week, tough criticisms of coal industry and state regulatory practices have been watered down.

For instance, the first draft said coal operators are "indiscriminately dumping" waste rock and dirt into huge valley fills. The final report only says that more rock and dirt are going into fills than can be accounted for by the "swell factor" that occurs when strata become rubble.

The final draft also offers less concrete solutions to the problems it identified, although the initial draft was a bit hazy in its suggestions as well.

On perhaps the most important issue - how to define "approximate original contour," or what constitutes returning mountains to something resembling their original shape - OSM merely asks for guidance on whether it should make a decision or continue to leave the matter to the states.

The report also falls down by noting deficiencies in the state regulatory program, but not specifying how to correct them. These are serious areas where the state program is not as stringent as the federal regulations, a violation of the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act.

The most important of these weaknesses is the state's failure to require a coal firm to prove a market and a need for a proposed development on each flattened hilltop. In addition, the state allows "woodlands" as a proposed land use, even though federal regulations don't recognize it as a development.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., criticized OSM for the report's failure to resolve any of the regulatory disputes that have held up new permits for mountaintop removal mines.

Byrd said the report puts off a resolution of the central questions. "It ... does nothing to end the uncertainty with which mining families who face layoffs are having to live," he said.

Rahall said OSM "has shown it has no backbone to aggressively fulfill its statutory mandate to coalfield citizens." He also criticized Interior Solicitor John Leshy, whose staff rewrote much of the report. Rahall had asked Leshy to ensure that the report would be handled correctly. Obviously, Rahall didn't mean for it to be diluted.

OSM has miserably failed in its duty to oversee West Virginia's regulators. This report was a belated attempt to rectify that situation. Sadly, it simply compounds past failures and resolves no major issues.

Because of OSM's failure, families and communities continue to face an uncertain future.


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