West Virginia isn't the only state where huge mountaintop-removal coal mines have been improperly permitted, according to a newspaper report.Many mountaintop-removal operations in Kentucky were permitted without the proper post-mining land development plans, according to a study by The Courier-Journal of Louisville.The report contradicts statements of Kentucky regulators, who have bragged that their state had only two mountaintop-removal mines and few complaints about them.The Courier-Journal article, published Tuesday also reported that federal regulators are starting to take a hard look at mines in Kentucky.Coal industry officials in West Virginia have complained they are facing more scrutiny than their competitors in Kentucky."It just confirms what everyone has said - that this is a widespread problem that federal and state agencies have let slide for a long time," said Cindy Rank, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy."And now, it's gotten so big that the damage is hard to ignore," Rank said.The lengthy Courier-Journal article noted that under federal strip mine law, mine operators must generally return mined land to its approximate original contour. They can ignore that requirement, and flatten land, only if they promise to improve it with development such as factories, shopping malls or schools.But the Courier-Journal searched Kentucky state mining permits and found many mountaintop-removal mines rarely provide any post-mining development."The law allows such dramatic change only if operators prove that the flattened land will serve a better purpose - such as an airport, a factory or public park," the newspaper said. "But this provision is rarely enforced, and most mountaintop mines are eventually left as grassy fields."The Courier-Journal conducted a computer analysis of Kentucky mining permits and found that 20 of the state's 45 active mountaintop-removal mines propose "fish and wildlife habitat" as their post-mining land use. That land use isn't allowed by federal law for mountaintop-removal mines.The article suggested that Kentucky has, since 1978, permitted more mountaintop-removal mines than West Virginia.Over the last 20 years, Kentucky has granted 367 mountaintop-removal permits.West Virginia has granted at least 134 such permits. But because of poor record-keeping, the state has been able to identify only about half of the permitted mountaintop-removal mines.Division of Environmental Protection officials are working to fix those record-keeping problems.The Courier-Journal found that 57 of those 367 permits proposed fish and wildlife habitat as a post-mining land use. Ninety-four proposed forestland, which is also not allowed under federal law.For 74 Kentucky permits, no post-mining land use was listed.Bill Caylor, vice president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told the newspaper that mountaintop-removal mines improve otherwise useless land."They talk about creating a wasteland with mountaintop removal," Caylor said. "I argue that it was a wasteland before. All you could use it for before was forestland."If I owned a mountain in east Kentucky, I would insist that they use that mining method to leave me land that I could use."The article also reported that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have started investigating the loss of streams to valley fill waste piles at Kentucky's mountaintop-removal mines.Previously, coal industry officials complained that the EPA was holding up mine permits in West Virginia because of valley fill concerns, but doing nothing about valley fills in neighboring states.On Wednesday, OSM officials declined to offer much reaction to the Courier-Journal article.Margy White, chief of staff for OSM Director Kathy Karpan, said only that the agency plans a study of mountaintop removal in Kentucky similar to one performed this year in West Virginia. Results of the West Virginia study have not been released.White declined to respond to questions about why OSM allowed dozens of improper permits to be issued in Kentucky."We are engaged in the proper procedure for how we conduct oversight," White said. "That is where we are and that is all we have to say."Rank said she hopes OSM stops talking and studying mountaintop removal and takes some action to fix the problems."I certainly hope they do more than look at the problems," she said. "I think we should stop this for a while so the agencies can figure out what to do."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.