CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As this year's legislative session begins, a state advisory council is again urging lawmakers to increase a coal production tax that funds abandoned mine cleanups and a scathing new audit says mismanagement by the Department of Environmental Protection could leave the state responsible for "immense amounts of monies" for reclamation.
Investigators from the Legislative Auditor's office found DEP did not have accurate data on abandoned site cleanup costs, consistently miscalculates necessary reclamation bond amounts, and often does not complete required inspections of abandoned mine sites.
Auditors also reported that the state is at risk of losing tens of millions of dollars in unsecured reclamation funding if companies and their insurers go belly up.
"Most of the issues identified in this report result from inadequate record-keeping, poor or non-existent internal controls, and a lack of oversight on the part of the DEP," auditors said in a 137-page report.
DEP officials disagreed strongly with the audit findings. They argued auditors misunderstood the complex nature of insuring mine reclamation, exaggerated minor data discrepancies, and blamed agency officials for procedures required by state law.
At the same time, an actuarial report prepared for DEP's own Special Reclamation Advisory Council shows growing financial problems in the mine cleanup program.
Increased costs associated with properly treating water pollution at abandoned mines across West Virginia's coalfields could easily push the program's water treatment fund into deficit by 2020, according to a draft actuarial study issued last month.
Pinnacle Actuarial Resources Inc. recommended increasing the state's special reclamation tax on coal production from 14.4 cents per ton to 34.91 cents per ton to avoid insolvency.
Advisory council members, including representatives from industry and environmental groups, stopped short of that recommendation -- instead asking lawmakers to increase the special reclamation tax to 27.9 cents per ton, with the entire 13.5 cents per ton earmarked for future water pollution treatment.
At issue is DEP's Special Reclamation Program, which is charged with cleaning up coal mines abandoned since passage of the 197 federal strip-mining law.