FIRST, reporter Ken Ward Jr.
found that three-fourths of mountaintop removal mines approved in West Virginia didn't receive "approximate original contour" variances.
These variances mean that coal companies don't have to restore hills to their natural shape - a requirement at the heart of the 1977 U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Now Ward, in his continuing Mining the Mountains series, has found that most of the mines that received the AOC variance ignore its most important requirement: when companies don't put the land back the way it was before, they are supposed to ensure the flattened terrain is put to "equal or better economic or public use" after mining ends.
In the vast majority of cases, this is not happening - nor are there plans to make it happen.
Because of growing public concern over decapitation of the state's skyline, the mining industry has been publishing ads promising "West Virginia's Own Field of Dreams." Regarding the leveled crests, the ads say:
"Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, 'Field of Dreams,' if we build the sites, they will come. And when they come they bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians."
Well, "Field of Dreams" was a charming fantasy. But this myth peddled by mining companies is anything but charming, although it is every bit as fictitious as dead ballplayers coming to life for an Iowa farmer.
This is best illustrated by the flat, grassy plateau that used to be Bullpush Mountain, site of the state's oldest mountaintop removal job. None of the lofty promises filed with the permit came to pass, even though Bullpush is one of the more accessible locations.
Despite promises as far back as 1970 to develop this land, today it is only unused pasture. A new plan to build a residential community surrounding an 18-hole golf course is similar to 1980 plans to build a planned community on the site - and probably just as infeasible.
Thirty years, and no development. Is this the "field of dreams" promised by the industry?
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, contends that the federal law doesn't obligate coal companies to develop the flattened sites, but merely "to make sure the opportunity is there."
Raney is wrong. SMCRA is specific about the obligation of permit-holders. Before a variance can be granted, the coal company must show (1) a need and market for the proposed post-mining use, (2) that appropriate agencies have committed to making the necessary public investments, and (3) that the development is "practicable with respect to private financial capability for completion of the proposed use."
In addition, the coal company is supposed to attach a timetable to the reclamation plan, to integrate ongoing mining and reclamation with the post-mining land use.
Such detailed plans, even on those mountaintop sites that get the required variances, are rarely - if ever - included with permit applications, despite the legal requirement. That's because state and federal regulators fell down on the job.
As Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "OSM has been out to lunch." Only recently has public pressure convinced the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to take a closer look at the state program.
Moreover, instead of developments providing jobs, housing or recreation, most post-mining plans say the terrain will be used for hay-growing, pasture, rangeland or fish and wildlife habitat.
SMCRA was supposed to be a social compact between the coal industry and coalfield residents. In exchange for being allowed an environmentally devastating form of mining, industry was supposed to leave something better behind for the communities.
Mountaintop removal mines may be "fields of dreams" for out-of-state coal executives who line their pockets with profits from this most economical form of mining.
But this is the stuff of nightmares for West Virginians whose wells are ruined and whose foundations are cracked by the blasting, for communities choked with dust and pounded by rocks, and for mountaineers who watch their beloved hills lose their wild beauty.
Worse, West Virginians are left with little to show as coal companies fail to live up to their part of the bargain, and regulators let them get away with it.