The problem dates back to the 1980s, when the state first obtained approval from OSM to run its own strip-mining program under the 1977 federal law.
The late U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II had chastised regulators for failing to fix the problem, saying they had created a "climate of lawlessness." But Haden declined to step in after the Wise administration increased the special reclamation tax and created an advisory board meant to guide the DEP and the Legislature in ensuring adequate funding for mine cleanups.
In March, Conservancy lawyers sought to reopen the case that Haden ruled on, citing inaction by lawmakers in the face of audits showing continued funding problems in the reclamation program.
The DEP's Special Reclamation Advisory Council had urged lawmakers to double the special reclamation tax, but the Legislature did nothing after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman sent a letter opposing the advisory council's recommendation.
Ruth Ann Story, a lawyer for the OSM, told Copenhaver that agency officials believe he should not take any action until another audit and actuarial report on the special reclamation fund is finished later this year. Jim Snyder, a lawyer for the West Virginia Coal Association, agreed.
Conservancy lawyer Joe Lovett said the OSM and the coal industry are just looking for ways to delay action.
"There's been too much delay already," Lovett said. "We believe time is of the essence and the time for delay has passed."
Lovett said action by Copenhaver and the OSM -- and fear of a possible federal takeover of parts of the DEP -- could force state political leaders to act.
"If OSM is forced into the mix, the Legislature might act differently," Lovett said. "Right now, there's just no pressure. The only way to move the state forward is for OSM to be forced into action."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.