Coal Tattoo

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Earlier today, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was tweeting about how this is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. DEP even included a link to the remarks at the signing ceremony.

Not long after those tweets, though, the Citizens Coal Council issued a press release to mark the anniversary. Among other things, the group noted:

“In the 40 years since enactment of this law, what has happened to these promises – the promises codified into SMCRA as the purposes of the Act and reflected in its long arduous legislative history?” questioned Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of the Citizens Coal Council. “In substantial measure, as experienced by coalfield citizens and coalfield communities all across the country, these promises have not been honored.”  Rather, they have been “honored in breach,” as some might say – that is, ignored, compromised, and twisted in their implementation and interpretation.

“The 40th anniversary of the enactment of SMCRA is not a time of celebration of achievement, but rather, a somber reminder that after 40 years of implementation, and fully sixty or more years after grassroots efforts to see enacted a national program for controlling surface coal mining operations, the promises made by Congress to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept,” noted Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council.

The press release continued:

Congress committed to coalfield communities that they would be protected from harm, that mining would be a temporary use of land, and that reclamation would closely follow the mining of coal. Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift.

Despite the earnest efforts by line workers for the agency over these decades, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has failed to take effective action to address some of the most glaring deficiencies in the state implementation of the Act’s requirements.  The passage of SMCRA held out the hope that coalfield citizens would no longer have to sacrifice their fundamental rights to a safe and healthy environment in order to feed a nation’s desire for “cheap” energy.

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Among the tweets earlier today from the DEP was this one:

Well … it wasn’t so long ago that we reported this in the Gazette-Mail:

A three-year investigation by the U.S. Department of the Interior has documented persistent failures by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to enforce state rules governing the coal-mining industry, including a lack of proper water quality monitoring, poor oversight of reclamation standards and inconsistent efforts to ensure mountaintop removal doesn’t cause localized flooding.

The probe by Interior’s Office of Surface Mining found, for example, that West Virginia mining inspectors were not collecting water pollution samples on a quarterly basis, even at operations that repeatedly had violated their permit limits, and had conducted no independent sampling of mine sites where underground injection of wastewater was the chosen disposal method.

Federal officials said their findings “demonstrated that repetitive exceedances” of water pollution permit limits “were not being adequately addressed” by DEP surface mining field inspections.

OSM experts also found that the DEP did not make sure that mining flood-protection plans were updated to take into account local on-the-ground field conditions. State officials had not prevented mine operators from using or wrongly applying substitutes for existing topsoil when they receive reclamation variances to avoid having to collect and then reuse that existing topsoil, a practice many operators view as too costly and time-consuming.

So it’s worth remembering some of what President Carter had to say on that Aug. 3 back in 1977:

… I’m not completely satisfied with the legislation. I would prefer to have a stricter strip mining bill. I’m concerned with some of the features that had to be watered down during this session to get it passed …