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'Original contour' divides task force

A gubernatorial task force is split on one of the major issues concerning mountaintop removal mining: whether the final product meets the federal "approximate original contour" reclamation requirement.The issue may be one of the hot topics tonight, when Gov. Cecil Underwood's mountaintop removal task force holds its final public hearing.The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Marshall University Graduate College in South Charleston.Last week, three task force committees issued drafts of their reports on the economic, environmental, and community impact sides of mountaintop removal.Two of the committees, environmental and economic, addressed the approximate original contour, or AOC, issue.The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act generally required all strip mine companies to put land back the way they found it. Under the law, land had to be reclaimed so it "closely resembles the general surface configuration" of pre-mined land.Mountaintop removal was meant to be a limited exception. Companies could ignore AOC, and flatten out the land, but only if the flattened land was needed for development. Companies were required to submit concrete development plans to receive AOC variances.The U.S. Office of Surface Mining, however, has never defined AOC, or drawn up any concrete standards to help states implement the rule.State Division of Environmental Protection officials say that OSM's inaction forces them to allow mountaintop removal mines to chop hundreds of feet off hilltops and call the leveled land that results AOC.The task force's environmental community, however, concluded there is nothing wrong with the way the AOC is currently enforced.
"With respect to various allegations and news reports about mountaintop mining, the committee finds no evidence that the permitting process has resulted in issuance of 'illegal' mining permits," the committee report said."Mined lands generally are being returned to AOC, or have obtained variances ... currently allowed and defined by federal and state law," it said. "In addition, each individual permit which has been issued for mountaintop mining has been subjected to extensive public scrutiny in the public participation process; including advertising, public comment, and public hearings. Protests with respect to AOC requirements or variances could have been voiced at that time."The committee did concede that OSM is completing a study of AOC issues. It said, "further consideration of AOC and the adequacy of land use decisions may need to continue after the release of the OSM report."The OSM report is now three months overdue. It was scheduled to be released in mid-August.The task force economic committee disagreed with the environmental group.
Its draft report found that mountaintop removal mines are supposed to receive AOC variances, which means they must come up with post-mining development plans."Mountaintop removal and the associated valley fills were considered exceptions to the AOC requirement which the state regulatory agency could authorize in specific circumstances," the economic committee report said.The economic committee also said that regulatory agencies need to pay more attention to AOC and post-mining land uses when they approve permits."A fair reading of SMCRA and its historical compromise between mining and the conservation of the natural landscape requires a much more attenuated exception for mountaintop removal mining than has been recent practice in West Virginia," it said. 
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.
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