The U.S. Office of Surface Mining waited far too long to force West Virginia officials to fix a bankrupt abandoned mine reclamation system, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Chief U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II said that OSM "unreasonably delayed" taking over the state's mine bonding program.
Since 1991, OSM officials have said that the state doesn't make coal operators post large enough bonds to pay to reclaim mine sites that they abandon.
OSM has repeatedly told the state to reform the system. But federal officials have done nothing when the state ignored those orders.
Last year, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed a federal court lawsuit. The group's lawyers asked Haden to force federal intervention.
In his Friday ruling, Haden did not order OSM to immediately take control of strip mine bonding in the state.
But the judge refused - as OSM had requested - to throw out the case.
Instead, Haden said that he would make sure there were no further delays and that neither the state nor OSM implement changes that fall short of a long-term solution.
In a 22-page opinion, Haden also condemned regulators, politicians and coal operators who he said profit by ignoring federal strip mining regulations.
"The direct consequences of [OSM's] decade-long delay have been examined here before: thousands of acres of unreclaimed strip-mined land, untreated polluted water, and millions (potentially billions) of dollars of state liabilities," Haden wrote.
"The indirect results, however, may be more damaging: a climate of lawlessness, which creates a pervasive impression that continued disregard for federal law and statutory requirements goes unpunished, or possibly unnoticed," he wrote. "Agency warnings have no more effect than a wink and a nod, a deadline is just an arbitrary date on the calendar and, once passed, not to be mentioned again.
"Financial benefits accrue to the owners and operators who were not required to incur the statutory burden and costs attendant to surface mining; political benefits accrue to the state executive and legislators who escape accountability while the mining industry gets a free pass," the judge wrote.
"Why should the state actors do otherwise, when the federal regulatory enforcers' findings, requirements and warnings remain toothless and without effect?" Under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, states are allowed to regulate their own coal industries. Congress created OSM to watch over the states, and make sure they do a good job.
Among other things, SMCRA requires states to make coal companies post reclamation bonds before they receive new mining permits. The idea was to make sure that mines abandoned after 1977 were cleaned up properly.
Older mines that were abandoned before 1977 are cleaned up with a separate pool of money from a federal coal production tax.
Under federal rules, states may adopt two types of bonding systems.
Under one type of bonding, coal companies must post bonds that would cover the full cost of reclaiming their mine sites.
If companies go belly up, they forfeit their bond money. States use the money to clean up the mine sites.