Coalfield residents have reason to be concerned about the long- term effects of mountaintop removal mining, according to a new report to Congress from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining. OSM officials concede in the report that state and federal regulators have not done a good job monitoring mountaintop removal, but promise to do better in the future. "It is OSM's contention that, when completed, the ongoing activities will resolve many outstanding issues surrounding mountaintop mining, valley fills and their impacts, post-mining land use, jurisdictional questions, approximate original contour, and approximate original contour variances," the OSM report said. "OSM is aggressively pursuing the implementation of appropriate recommendations, including the need for any subsequent additional data collection and studies, as well as any policy and/or rule changes that may be necessary," it said. The report asserts that, "Although there has been an increase in the number and size of [mountaintop removal] operations, they account for a very small percentage of the overall mining in these states." "Nonetheless," it adds, "the citizens of West Virginia and Kentucky appear to be justified in their concerns about the cumulative environmental impacts from mountaintop operations." The report also concedes that OSM has not taken steps yet to fix problems associated with dozens of improper mountaintop removal permits issued in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. For example, on defining what constitutes "approximate original contour," or AOC, the report says OSM is still working with state agencies to decide if a more concrete definition is needed. The report states that the issue is very important. If mining proposals can't comply with approximate original contour, it says, they must propose post-mining developments and receive an AOC variance. "If approximate original contour is required for the permit, less excess spoil will be required," the report says. "Less excess spoil disposal will result in smaller valley fills and the resultant decrease in impacts to streams." The report said that OSM is considering a process for determining whether a reclamation plan complies with the AOC standards. This process, the report said, will also establish which portion of the overburden, or spoil, removed during surface mining is truly excess and in need of valley fill disposal. OSM has agreed with the state Division of Environmental Protection on a pilot program for review of permit applications to assess AOC attainment and "establish necessary excess spoil volumes for each proposed mining operation." The pilot program is also being discussed for possible implementation in Kentucky and Virginia, the OSM report said. The report was required by the House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations fiscal year 1999 budget bill for OSM. The report was dated Feb. 23, but was distributed to members of Congress on Monday. It consisted of a 25-page narrative and a thick set of appendices and other documents.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.