THE STATE Division of Environmental Protection is collecting just a little more than a fifth of the fines it levies against coal companies for violating strip mine laws, Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. found.DEP has $42 million in uncollected penalties over the last 10 years.The ignored fines, combined with inadequate bonds to cover cleanup costs if companies go bankrupt, have left the state Special Reclamation Fund severely underfunded, with an potential deficit of more than $62 million.This is not a new problem. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has been warning DEP for a decade that the reclamation fund is in trouble. Both agencies have tried to come up with solutions for the financial shortage.
Gee, how about actually collecting fines against coal companies? There's a novel idea.A 100 percent collection rate is probably unrealistic. As Ed Griffith, assistant chief for DEP's Office of Mining and Reclamation, told Ward, many companies the state has fined have gone bankrupt.In 1990, the state added delinquent civil penalties into the Applicant Violator System, which blocked permits for companies that owed for fines.But obviously, more needs to be done. In the last 10 years, DEP has collected only 22 percent of the fines it has issued to coal companies.That's a lousy batting average, and it's hampering the state's ability to clean up abandoned mines.