The U.S. Office of Surface Mining should beef up its regulation of mountaintop removal mining, U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said during a congressional hearing last week.OSM Director Kathy Karpan appeared before the House Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources during an annual budget hearing Thursday.Rahall told Karpan that, "This has been a very troubling year in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia."With mountaintop removal mining operations becoming increasingly larger, both OSM and the Corps of Engineers ... were unprepared and unable to cope with the regulatory demands operations of this nature placed on them," Rahall said.Rahall added that, "OSM's oversight of the state regulatory program in this area was found to be nonexistent."Last year, a series of Gazette articles revealed that most mountaintop removal permits issued by the state Division of Environmental Protection did not contain required approximate original contour variances or post-mining land use development plans.The series also noted that OSM had never studied the issue, and that its annual reviews of the DEP did not pick up on the improper permits being issued.A draft OSM report released in December conceded most of the series' findings. The report has not been finalized, and OSM has taken no action to fix the problems."Post-mining land uses were being permitted that were a violation of the letter, or if not that, certainly the intent of [the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] and OSM by perhaps every account but its own failed to provide adequate guidance on one of the most critical reclamation standards of the law: What constitutes approximate original contour," Rahall said.
In her prepared remarks to the subcommittee, Karpan mentioned mountaintop removal once.She said that OSM is working closely with other federal agencies on a two-year study of mountaintop removal. The study was prompted by a citizen lawsuit against the Corps and the state Division of Environmental Protection. OSM was not a party to the suit.Rahall said, "For her part, Director Karpan inherited the problems which were made public last year."It is now incumbent upon her to display the type of leadership necessary to swiftly correct deficiencies in the mountaintop removal mining regulatory program," Rahall said."This is no laughing matter in the hills and hollows of West Virginia," Rahall said. "While the regulatory program remains unsettled, citizens' lives and homes are being disrupted, miners face the possibility of layoff, and the economy in places like Logan, Mingo and Boone counties which is so dependent on coal swings in the balance."Rahall said that it is time for the post-mining development of land flattened by mountaintop removal to be required by regulators, as the law envisioned.
"Our dream when enacting [SMCRA] was to leave people in the coalfields with viable economic development opportunities once the coal ran out as a trade-off for allowing a variance for mountaintop removal mining," he said."SMCRA was more than an environmental law," said Rahall, who served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the act. "It is also social legislation." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.