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Published: Thursday, July 26, 2007
Page: 7A
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

A 30-year-old federal strip mine law has not stopped coal operators from blowing up mountains, displacing coalfield communities, and burying hundreds of miles of streams, a congressional committee heard Wednesday.

Federal and state regulators have failed to enforce the 1977 law, and courts have eroded the ability of citizens to force compliance, according to testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee.

Brian Wright, director of coal policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council in Indiana, said that the law has fixed only "some of the most egregious mining practices."

"Coalfield residents must still contend with contamination and loss of local groundwater, blasting damage to homes, unresponsive regulatory agencies, large-scale open dumping of industrial wastes into mines, and growing concern about subsidence from longwall mining," Wright told lawmakers.

4 hours of testimony

Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., agreed that the goal of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act "remains elusive" and blamed lax oversight by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

"My sense is that the agency is once again adrift, floating in a sea of coalfield citizen unrest and industry desire to have regulatory stability," said Rahall, who served on the conference committee that wrote the law.

Rahall scheduled Wednesday's lengthy hearing in anticipation of the Aug. 3 anniversary of President Carter's signing of the law, known as SMCRA.

For nearly four hours, 15 speakers testified. They represented OSM, state regulatory agencies, citizen groups, the United Mine Workers and the coal industry.

Rahall grilled OSM officials about what he said is a central issue in the debate over mountaintop removal: whether strip mines in Appalachia are being forced to either reclaim the land to its approximate original contour, or provide for some sort of post-mining development of the site.

No clear definition

Rahall complained that OSM has never clearly defined approximate original contour, or AOC. Many mine operators take advantage of this, he said. They classify their mines as meeting the AOC standard, even though they change elevation by hundreds of feet or modify the topography greatly. OSM's lack of a clear definition allows these mines to avoid the post-mining development requirements for an AOC variance, Rahall said.

Glenda Owens, deputy OSM director, responded that her agency was considering issuing national guidance to more clearly define AOC.

In an unusual move, Owens also appeared to agree with Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., that federal environmental laws should not - and do not - allow coal operators to bury hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams.

Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, said mining states need more funding help from OSM to properly regulate the coal industry.

OSM grants to states have "flat-lined" and become "stagnant" over the last decade, Conrad said.

Testimony differs

But Stephanie Timmermeyer, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, painted a better picture of mining, reclamation and enforcement in West Virginia.

Timmermeyer said strict standards protect water quality, ensure quality reclamation and resulted in "many new commercial developments" on previously mined land.

"Both mining and environmental protection are big business in our state," Timmermeyer told committee members.

Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said Timmermeyer was misleading committee members about the situation in West Virginia.

Lovett agreed with Rahall about the state and federal government's failure to enforce the AOC reclamation standard.

"The act requires that the post-mining land generally resemble the surface configuration of pre-mining land," Lovett said. "Anybody can look at these mines and know that is not the case."

Ellen Pfister, a Montana rancher and longtime activist, told committee members that Appalachia isn't the only place where mining damages the environment.

In the West, huge strip mines disrupt aquifers. Water pours into mining pits and is polluted by waste rock and dirt, Pfister explained. "We don't have mountaintop removal in the West, but we have aquifer removal," she said.

Criticism of OSM

Walt Morris, a longtime environmental group lawyer based in Virginia, said OSM - created to protect coalfield residents - now refuses to provide routine public records or schedule citizen inspections.

Morris also explained that rulings by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have taken away citizens' rights to challenge lax state enforcement in federal court.

"Public participation under the Surface Mining Act has become so hobbled that, as a practical matter, citizens can no longer play the important supporting role that Congress envisioned," Morris said.

Clear up 'redundancy'

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the appeals court decisions have protected his industry from unreasonable local judges and frivolous citizen lawsuits.

Raney urged Rahall's committee to clear up "overlapping redundancy" between the strip mine law and the Clean Water Act that provides "fertile ground for harassing lawsuits and judicially inspired regulatory confusion."

Also, Raney complained that the AOC rule forces companies to put back hills that would be better left flat for possible future development.

"The travesty is there is a lot of level ground that is being stacked back up to 60 percent slopes," Raney said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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