Coal Tattoo

Flatten it … and nobody ever comes

Gov.  Joe Manchin is known for being a pretty optimistic guy. And, of course, he’s a big Friend of Coal.  But it’s hard to figure exactly what the governor is up to with his efforts regarding “post-mining land use” of mountaintop removal sites.

The latest twist?

In his new energy bill (yet to be introduced, but available in draft form here), Manchin proposes to give triple credits toward meeting the proposed renewable energy standard to companies that put renewable projects onto reclaimed mine sites.

The governor had promoted such projects recently in his weekly column, noting that the state Department of Environmental Protection was working with West Virginia University “to study the feasibility of growing switchgrass – a tall grass that can grow on former surface mine lands and, once harvested, can be used to produce fuel.”

The governor started this campaign a year ago, in his 2008 State of the State address, suggesting that mined lands could be used for “renewable energy projects such as biomass, solar and wind.” Oddly, the governor added that he was “committed to examining the legal barries that restrict such developments.”

As I wrote at the time:

Manchin staffers were unable to explain what those legal barriers are, and later, Department of Environmental Protection mining director [Now Secretary] Randy Huffman said the problem isn’t so much ‘legal barriers,’ but a failure by coal companies to come up with valid post-mining developments.

Not long after his 2008 speech, Manchin apppointed a group to study  post-mining land use issues and develop “a more concrete framework” to re-evaluate currently undeveloped mine sites and plan the use of future mine sites. Manchin said at the time that a “lack of coordination among key stakeholders has resulted in multiple reclaimed surface mine sites that do not materially contribute to the economic base of the local and state economies.”

Manchin ordered this group to submit a preliminary report by July 1, 2008, and a set of final recommendations by July 1, 2009.

The preliminary report was all of 3 pages long (actually, it’s only 2 pages — one of the 3 pages is a cover letter to the governor from Commerce Secretary Kelley Goes),  and was heavy on all sorts of proposals to encourage coal companies to voluntarily take part in post-mining development planning. For example, one recommendation suggested the state:

Investigate the possibility of creating incentives for coal mine operators to participate in development projects proposed in the plans. For instance, a statutory change could be considered that would required the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to prioritize those mining permits that propose the following post-mining land uses: bio-oil cropland, heavy industry, light industry and commercial services, public services, commercial forestry and residential. Further, a statutory change could be made that would allow the WVDEP to adjust bond release amounts and timeframes when reclamation is in accordance with a post-mining land use plan which is approved by the WVDEP and accepted by a local or regional economic development or planning agency in accordance with a plan.

And interestingly,  the group actually suggested that the WVDEP and the state Development Office “develop a post-mining land use handbook that explains that statutory authorities, rules and permit requirements.”

WVDEP officials might need some help to do that, because the record suggests that agency isn’t really clear on what the rules are — or if it is clear on them, it isn’t interested in enforcing them. If Manchin really wants to do something about the post-mining development of mountaintop removal sites, that’s where he might consider starting: By enforcing the existing law.

Let’s review, based on a story I wrote nearly 10 years ago, in the Gazette’s 1998 series on mountaintop removal:

Congress passed the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, known as SMCRA, in 1977. The law was designed to protect coalfield residents and the environment from the potential ravages of strip mining.

The heart of the law is a requirement that coal operators put strip mined land back the way they found it.

All mine operators are required under the law to return mined land to its approximate original contour, or AOC. In legal terms, companies must reclaim land so that it “closely resembles the general surface configuration of the land prior to mining.”

Mountaintop removal was to be a limited exception. Operators could chop off entire mountaintops and dump leftover rock and earth into nearby valleys, burying streams.

But under federal law, mountaintop removal was allowed only if mine operators planned to build schools, shopping centers, factories or public parks on the flattened land.

Mine operators could receive AOC variances, and flatten the land, only if they submitted detailed development plans for one of five post-mining land uses: industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential or public facilities.

The problem?

Few mining companies sought AOC variances, because WVDEP enforced that term so loosely that they didn’t need to. And even when companies did ask for and receive those variances,  they seldom proposed anything in the way of real post-mining development. WVDEP didn’t make them, and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining — charged with making sure WVDEP does a good job — never noticed the problem. Reports by OSM officials in West Virginia and Kentucky later confirmed the Gazette’s findings. State and federal officials promised reforms. But it’s hard to find many examples where new businesses have been located on mountaintop removal sites.  Projects by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority are a shining exception.  But those successes occurred because of local planners, not because coal companies — as they’re supposed to do under the law — came up with a post-mining development plan as part of their original permit application.

So will Manchin’s group recommend that the governor start by just making WVDEP enforce the existing law?

If you think it should, the post-mining land group is holding bi-monthly meetings at the state Capitol, starting with one at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 24, in Conference Room 6A of Building 6.