Coal Tattoo

Mountaintop development?

Last week, Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting did an interesting story about a move by our friend Chris Hamilton at the West Virginia Coal Association to re-brand mountaintop removal mining as “mountaintop development.” According to Erica:

The coal industry has long pointed to its economic benefit in West Virginia — from mining jobs to development projects on former mine sites. Now, there’s talk of changing mining terminology to reflect some of this economic development.

Last month, Tyler Phipps, a junior at the University of Kentucky submitted a letter to the university’s student newspaper.  Phipps pointed to examples of development on former mine sites in Kentucky, and suggested the term “mountaintop development” might be a better way to describe the practice.

Phipps’ phrase appealed to many in the coal industry. Two days later, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, emailed the story to coal groups, echoing the call of Massey Energy Vice President Mike Snelling that this might be a good way to re-brand the controversial practice.

“It just sort of struck a favorable note among those of us who are more directly involved with the coal industry and surface mining here in West Virginia,” Chris Hamilton said. “All around the state we have many examples today of industrial, commercial or recreational facilities that are on post-mine land sites, former mine sites, where there’s just a tremendous amount of economic development.”

It got me thinking about the discussion on Coal Tattoo a week earlier regarding a West Virginia Commerce Department press release that touted creation of 13,000 jobs on former surface mines in West Virginia. After bugging the Commerce Department, I finally got a copy of their list of projects involved in these jobs. I posted the list here, and also posted some notes the Commerce Department provided regarding some of the projects on the list.

I’ve spent a little bit of time looking at the list, and a few interesting things jumped out at me:

First, about 42 percent of the jobs — nearly 5,600 of them — are seasonal positions, part-time jobs, or temporary construction work.  There’s no mention of this in the Commerce Department press release.

Second, two thirds of the 7,739 full-time jobs are at sites nowhere near Southern West Virginia. They’re in Grant, Harrison, Hancock and Monongalia counties. More than a third of the full-time jobs are at one project — the FBI Center near Clarksburg.

Also interesting were a couple of the notes at the end of the actual list of projects …  For example:

This includes sites that have had prior mining activity. This includes sites with a designated post-mine land use in the permit, properties mined prior to 1977 and projects where a permit was not needed due to incidental coal.

So, we’re not at all talking exclusively about large mountaintop removal sites where post-mining development was made possible by provisions of the 1977 Surface Mining Act that required such development for sites with variances to the “approximate original contour” reclamation standard.

The Pete Dye Golf Course, above, was built on an abandoned coal mine.  The Boy Scout camp is also being built on abandoned mine sites, and the state is spending $12 million in AML money to clean them up in preparation for that. And some of these sites apparently involved little coal mining at all — only removal of coal that was “incidental” to the development and did not require a mining permit. Others were mined and fully reclaimed, and development projects came much later and independently of the mining.

How many of these sites fall into those kinds of categories? Exactly which companies mined these sites? When did they mine them? What about the permitting process and the post-mining development process at these projects worked? What can the state learn from them if they were indeed so successful?

Well, I’m not sure how anybody is going to be able to answer those questions, because it appears the state still doesn’t do much to really keep track of such matters.

I asked Commerce Department spokeswoman Courtney Sisk a few relatively simple questions about the list and the press release her agency issued.

For example, I wanted mining permit numbers for each of the projects, so I could get more information from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection about the sites.

Sisk hasn’t been able to provide those numbers. She did forward to me an e-mail message from Jeff Wood of the Coalfield Development Office, in which Wood explained how the list was put together:

The Office compiled the list of projects from various sources, mainly from local development agencies and had these projects verified by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to be on post mined properties. The properties were evaluated to ensure that mining activity occurred on post mine land property.

Well, I asked WVDEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco about that, and here’s what she told me:

I’m having trouble finding anyone who says they proofed or reviewed the information you sent me. Also, I’m not having much luck getting you permit numbers for the sheet you sent me.

In the Commerce Department press release, Division of Energy Director Jeff Herholdt is quoted saying:

With some areas of our state having little flat land for development, the use of surface mined lands has been critically important to providing land for new industry and facilities for use by the general public. In addition to the flat land, many projects are able to take advantage of infrastructure, roads and electric-service used during coal mining.”

Sounds great, huh? But are government development boosters and mining regulators just interested in trying to help the coal industry “re-brand” strip mining, or in holding coal companies to the post-mining development requirements Congress established 33 years ago?

To be clear about this, post-mining development of these sites isn’t supposed to be something that happens much later than mining. It’s not supposed to be something that a bunch of local folks come up with long after the mining operation is closed. Mine operators are not supposed to be able to just flatten the land, and hope somebody comes and builds a factory or a mall someday.

Congress required in the Surface Mining Act (See page 83 of this pdf version) that mining operators submit permit applications containing “specific plans for the proposed post-mining land use and appropriate assurances that such use” will be:

— Compatible with adjacent land uses;

— Obtainable according to data regarding expected need and market;

— Assured of investment in necessary public facilities;

— Supported by commitments from public agencies where appropriate;

— Practicable with respect to private financial capability for completion of the proposed use;

— Planned pursuant to a schedule attached to the reclamation plan so as to integrate the mining operation and reclamation with postmining land use; and

— Designed by a registered professional engineer in conformance with professional standards established to assure the stability, drainage, and configuration necessary for the intended use.

Have these requirements been enforced?

Well, there’s plenty of evidence that for many years they weren’t. We wrote about this in our original Mining the Mountains series in 1998, and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement confirmed our findings in its own oversight report. A follow-up report by West Virginia University, conducted as part of the broad Environmental Impact Statement on mountaintop removal, also found little to suggest post-mining development requirements were working.

More recent examinations of the issue in Kentucky by the Lexington Herald-Leader and across Appalachian by the Natural Resources Defense Council found little evidence of major strides in post-mining development of former coal sites.

There’s also a fairly recent (May 2010) oversight report by OSMRE that looked at whether the WVDEP had improved its review of post-mining land use issues in mining permits since that earlier study a decade ago. The report generally praised reforms made by WVDEP. But, it only looked at four AOC permits.  Only one of those proposed any sorts of post-mining development (a housing project) and it did not contain the required financial analysis to indicate the proposal was viable.

And interestingly, in response to my query about whether WVDEP checked the Commerce Department’s list, Kathy Cosco was kind enough to send me some data about post-mining land uses, including this spreadsheet that is apparently a list of mining permits issued since Oct. 1, 2001, with AOC variances.

Take a look … there are 15 permits on the list, and for eight of them, WVDEP does not list a “purpose of” the post-mining land use. All of those are commercial forestry sites — probably the same as the pre-mining land use. For another, WVDEP listed “industrial/commercial” as the post-mining land use, but said the purpose was for a commercial forest operation. Another “industrial/commercial” was for a wholesale nursery.  The others?

— An athletic complex, with a soccer field, road and parking

— An ATV park with trails.

— Two “commercial cow/calf operations” and/or “switchgrass production” areas.

— One subdivision with a water supply, sewer, and utilities.

During our Coal Tattoo discussion a few weeks ago, a reader who used the screen name “Bob” agreed that not nearly enough had been done to develop sites previously approved for mining. And he offered this vision of what could have been:

For example .. in terms of economic impact, the FBI Center alone accounts for 3,000 good-paying jobs, but it also spawned an entire tech corridor through the area that added many, many more jobs. This happened in large part by chance. Imagine the good that could be accomplished if this were indeed part of a well-planned, well-managed effort on the part of state and local leaders and the coal industry. These sites can become industrial and tech hubs, with others serving as residential support areas, recreational and educational hubs, etc.

That sounds great. But the problem is the mining industry is trying to use the potential for post-mining development as a reason to encourage more mountaintop removal and allow more flattened land, while WVDEP’s permit records don’t seem to indicate much development being proposed in those new permit applications.