INCREDIBLY, three-fourths of the controversial mountaintop removal strip mines currently decapitating West Virginia's skyline are illegal.Reporter Ken Ward Jr. revealed Sunday that 61 of the monster mines failed to get federal exemptions, as required by U.S. law.The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 requires all land to be restored to original contours after stripping, with an exception:Total removal of a mountaintop, and filling valleys with the "spoil," is allowable - but only if the coal firm prepares plans and financing to use the flattened crest for schools, housing, shopping centers, factories, parks or the like. If development is assured, state and federal agencies may issue an exemption excusing the mine from contour restoration.
However, Ward discovered, only 20 of West Virginia's 81 mountaintop mines drafted such plans and obtained exemptions. The rest are in violation of federal law.How did this outrage happen? Why did the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the state Division of Environmental Protection let the mines proceed without obeying the law? In some cases, the state agency ruled that the new plateaus will provide better hunting, thus they qualify as "public recreational facilities." Is it a charade to contend that hunting is better on bulldozed flats?Mountaintop removal is obliterating the "summits bathed in glory" that are hailed in the state song. National magazines and TV networks are showing the world how West Virginia is being devastated by out-of-state corporations that use the region as a colony.West Virginians need to know whether federal and state regulators skirted the law to let this happen.The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and some coalfield residents have announced their intent to sue over the lack of approved exemptions. Their action, plus Ward's Sunday disclosure, has caused state mining and reclamation chief John Ailes to delay a giant new permit. We hope the lawsuit flushes out an explanation of why the law wasn't obeyed.If it doesn't, West Virginia's members of Congress should consider hearings to learn why 61 mines were allowed to decapitate this state's crests in violation of federal law.