Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., on Monday blasted the U.S. Office of Surface Mining for being "out to lunch" on oversight of mountaintop removal coal mining. Rep. Bob Wise, also D-W.Va., said the situation is so bad it warrants a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until regulators get their act together. "The apparent lack of oversight and ambiguity of our state law have led to questions and controversy with regard to mountaintop removal," Wise said. "So many substantial questions have arisen on federal, state and judicial levels, the only responsible thing to do is to have a temporary moratorium on any new mountaintop removal permits until OSM and the Governor's commission have issued their reports and these important legal questions are settled," Wise said. Wise and Rahall issued statements in response to a Charleston Gazette report which outlined the failure of mountaintop removal mining to bring the legally required post-mining developments. The newspaper report indicated that most of the mountaintop removal permits issued by the state Division of Environmental Protection are illegal because they did not contain required post-mining land-use plans. Rahall, who served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, said, "As I have stated in the past, getting an exemption from the requirement to return land to its approximate original contour in order to conduct mountaintop removal mining comes at a price. And the price is that post-mining land uses must support industrial, commercial, agricultural, resident or public facilities," Rahall said. "In other words, once the coal is gone, at least local residents are left with some viable economic development opportunities. "However, it appears that, in many cases, the people have been robbed of these benefits," Rahall said. "The exemptions are granted. But I would hardly call pasture land as being something you can build an economy around. This is certainly not what we intended when passing the 1977 act." As for OSM, Rahall said, "It pains me to say this, but OSM has been out to lunch. "I do not think they can use budget cuts as an excuse anymore, not when it comes to failing to catch problems of the magnitude that are now being uncovered in the permitting process for major mining operations," he said. "Simply put, the agency's oversight has been a sham." Wise said, "I'm greatly concerned about what appears to be a lack of oversight of mountaintop removal practices in our state. "The apparent overuse of the fish, wildlife and recreation area as a post-mining land use classification appears to skirt the letter and the spirit of federal law," he said. "As I understand it, that law was meant to foster economic development such as the new prison at Mount Olive or Mount View High School in McDowell County, not more abandoned timber lots and deer preserves." Al Klein, OSM's regional director in Pittsburgh, said, "We are presently looking into several issues ... in our evaluation of West Virginia's post-mining land use, mountaintop removal and approximate original contour determinations. "We expect to have our report completed in early September and will follow up with any necessary corrective actions."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.