Coal Tattoo

Old issues: OSMRE annual report on WVDEP

Thanks to Coal Tattoo reader Bob Mooney for pointing out that the latest U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement evaluation of  the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s mining division is out and finally available to the public.

The report is available online here.

Every year, I spent a fair amount of time going through this report, catching up on what issues are being examined by OSMRE, looking for story ideas and generally educating myself about the status of various WVDEP issues.

The report also provides a lot of statistics, such as one of my favorites, which compares the amount of acreage under new strip-mining permits to the amount already under permit and the amount reclaimed during the year.

As it usually does, Table 5 of the report (see page 73 of the .pdf file) shows that full reclamation in West Virginia’s coalfields is not keeping up with new area put under permit by coal companies …  At the end of June, the state showed 304,591 acres under permit, compared to 301,951 acres at the same time in 2009.

Also, the annual report tips folks off to a many other oversight reports that OSMRE has completed or is working on regarding specific issues. For instance, this one mentions a recently completed report that points out some problems in the way WVDEP allows mine operators to change their permits through what it calls “incidental boundary revisions.” That part of the report found:

… Many of the IBRs in the review were combined with other operational changes, and the IBR acreage limits for surface mines were exceeded making the classification of all the changes subject to question as an IBR.

Most folks who have been following mining regulatory issues and keeping up with these annual OSMRE reviews will probably agree with me when I say I see a lot of old issues … There are many problems that state and federal regulators continue to wrestle with or examine, and in some cases issues that they simply haven’t found solutions to. Of course, there are also new problems that come up, raised by citizen groups or litigation or by the changing nature of the industry.

Some examples of issues I’ve seen in these reports over and over every year:

WVDEP staffing — WVDEP listed 268.05 full-time equivalent positions, but had 33 vacancies. According to OSMRE:

The number of vacancies continued to increase primarily due to retirements. Most of the vacancies are in permitting and inspection and enforcement.

Given the continued decline in total WVDEP regulatory staffing and the number of vacancies, OSM continues to make staffing a priority issue with the state. State officials acknowledge that they have made some progress in filling vacancies and they hope to fill 9 positions in the near future. In the past, state officials have admitted that they have had difficulty hiring and retaining technical staff.

Acid mine drainage inventory — WVDEP and OSMRE continue to struggle to put together an updated list of bonded permits with appreciable water treatment costs:

The remaining tasks relate to approximately 190 permits that require additional investigation to more accurately characterize water treatment costs and flow and water quality data for approximately 15 to 20 percent of the sites. Furthermore, additional information is needed regarding pumped discharge rates at underground mines; flow and chemistry data to estimate water treatment costs; and to complete a comprehensive reporting system.

— AMD Prediction — Back in 2007, OSMRE and WVDEP completed a review of underground mining permits where acid mine drainage had developed and found that data could be used more consistently by state permit reviews to predict, prevent and address AMD. The report also noted that the state’s Cumulative Hydrologic Impact Assessments, or CHIAs, should be required for significant underground mine expansions … WVDEP agreed to update its CHIA guidance, but has not completed the project yet.

— Approximate original contour — Another OSMRE oversight report found that the state needed to do more to ensure that mining operators follow the regrading plans approved in agency permits.

— West Virginia’s Alternative Bonding System — The state’s special reclamation fund is expected to remain solvent until 2038, but then go into the red largely because of water treatment costs.

To check out the annual oversight reports for various other coal states, visit this page on the OSMRE Web site.