When mining companies blow up mountain ridges to access underlying coal seams, they do a lot of damage. Forests are clear-cut, explosives are used to blast as much as 800 feet off the mountaintops, heavy equipment is brought in to expose the coal and waste is often dumped in surrounding areas.
To add insult to injury, these companies are required by federal law to restore large strip-mining sites back to their “approximate original contour” (AOC), but according to a new report by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, they rarely actually do it. Many mine sites are left stripped, while others are restored to heights up to 200 feet lower than the original mountains.
And even when mine operators fill former mines back in with rocks and dirt, the land is dramatically and permanently altered. This makes post-mining development of the sites impossible. In 2007, Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment director Joe Lovett testified before Congress about the extent of the damage in the Southern West Virginia coal mining region.
"The post-mining land is in isolated mountain areas, the land is unstable for building and it will no longer support native vegetation. In short, mountains and valleys have been changed dramatically in contour so that they resemble no surface configuration on Earth and the land is useless for development."
Mining companies have been allowed to get away with this because of lax enforcement of the law by state and federal environmental officials. In West Virginia, Department of Environmental Protection officials have failed to ensure that restoration is carried out properly, and environmental groups have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over.
Top OSM officials in Washington have reportedly decided to make enforcing the AOC reclamation standard a national priority, but there is still no clear nationwide rule from the Office of Surface Mining for how the standard should be applied.
Meanwhile, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials seem unconcerned. Tom Clarke, director of the DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation, downplayed the OSM’s findings.
According to Clarke, the on-the-ground reclamation found by the OSM "might be considered within the acceptable range of tolerance, considering you are sculpting the ground with a bulldozer, not Michelangelo doing Venus de Milo or something."