State mine regulators on Monday touted a proposal they say will make coal operators do more to rebuild the hills that mountaintop removal mining knocks down. About 75 people turned out for an evening meeting at the University of Charleston to hear the state Division of Environmental Protection explain its new definition of "approximate original contour" mine reclamation. DEP and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining proposed the new definition to counter criticism that mountaintop removal mines were skirting the so-called AOC rule. Under the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, strip mine operators must generally put mined land back the way they found it. The law defines AOC as reclaiming land so that it "closely resembles the general surface configuration" of the land prior to mining. Under the law, mountaintop removal mines can be exempt from AOC, and flatten the land. But they can only be exempt if the mine operator proposes post-mining land development plans for things such as schools, shopping malls or factories. Last year, a series of Gazette articles showed that most mountaintop removal mines in the state did not receive AOC variances or propose post-mining development. In December, OSM released its own study which found that the state's definition of AOC was too broad and inconsistent. The study also said DEP had approved AOC variances without the required post-mining development plans. The result, according to OSM, was that coal operators removed rock and earth to reach coal reserves and indiscriminately dumped that rock and earth into valleys, burying streams unnecessarily. Last week, OSM and DEP said the state would test a program to require coal companies to put most rock and earth back on mined-out hilltops. At Monday's meeting, DEP engineer Ed Wojtowicz said that the program would mean the only material that would not be stacked back on hilltops would be that required to be put elsewhere to protect stability, control erosion, and allow road access to mined areas. Wojtowicz presented an hourlong computerized slide show that depicted mountaintop removal mines that would bury smaller amounts of stream and rebuild more of the mountains. "The process here is about trying to reduce the number of fills and the size of fills," Wojtowicz said. Wojtowicz said he wanted to make it clear that the new program is just to provide guidance to permit engineers and companies, and is not a concrete rule or regulation. "This is a concept or a model," he said. "It's not a rigid formula." Roger Calhoun, director of the OSM Charleston field office, said he wanted to emphasize that his agency is playing only a "secondary role" in the new pilot program. "At this point, we are taking a backseat to see how things go," Calhoun said. DEP Director Michael Miano said his agency has no plans to make the program retroactive so that permits already approved would have to comply with it. Miano insisted that DEP has not improperly issued any permits. "What has been done in the past was done in accordance with the law," Miano said. Andy Gallagher, DEP's public information officer, would not allow questions about how the new policy would affect permits that are pending. Gallagher also tried to avoid questions about whether DEP would continue with an earlier plan to review old mountaintop removal permits and fix any improper post-mining land use proposals. John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation, answered that question anyway. "The plans are to go back ultimately and change the post-mining land use," Ailes said. "That is what we have tentatively agreed to." Industry officials at Monday's meeting asked a few questions, but had little criticism for the DEP plan. Environmental activists weren't as quiet. Winnie Fox of Huntington said, "I'd like to know how you're ever going to approximate the contour. It took thousands of years for the mountains to be formed. "I'm not an engineer. I'm not a geologist, but even I know you can't put the mountains back." Wojtowicz replied, "We do the best we can."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.