Formation of the

  Coal Mining
  Mountaintop Removal
  Electricity from
    coal burning

  Reforming mountaintop

  Solid waste disposal
  Deep mining of coal
  Coal, people, politics,
    and money


Coal Mining: Black Diamonds and Black Holes      The beauty of the ancient mountians fails to disclose an inner time capsule: a rich abundance of coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which have been extracted at great profit, still leaving rich reserves yet to be tapped.

     Huge coal reserves. The western two-thirds of West Virginia occupy the greatest bituminous coal field on earth, the Appalachian Coal Field, which extends from northern Pennsylvania to central Alabama.The state's coal field contains hundreds of seams of coal varying in thickness from as thin as a few inches to as thick as ten feet or more.  Some seams are easy to view in road cuts when traveling on major highways. Many of the thick seams and easily accessible seams are "mined out," as the locals say. The consequence has been more destructive mining techniques since the late 1980s.

      Coal. Coal is a rock composed of many minerals, the main one being carbon. West Virginia has 117 different coal seams, 65 of which are being mined today. Although estimates vary, perhaps there are 50 billion tons of minable coal reserves remaining.

     Sulfur associated with coal can react chemically with other elements and produce sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid.  The most desirable low-sulfur coal is in the steep-hilled mountains of southern West Virginia.

     Two coal fields. There are two coal fields in the state. The northern coal field traditionally produced mostly "steam" coal for generating electricity. The northern field has fewer minable coal beds. Its coal has higher sulfur content, higher ash content, and lower heating value. Northern coal is out of favor primarily due to its high sulfur content.

     The most desirable low-sulfur coal is the southern coal field. Traditionally "metalurgical" coal, called "met" coal, has been mined to make steel. The southern coal field has more mineral coal beds. Its coal has lower sulfur content, lower ash content, and higher heating value. Now much of this coal is used to generate electricity, in an effort to comply with air quality standards.

     Coal is more than a rock, though. In the labyrinth that is southern West Virginia, coal mining spawned its own subculture. Books and movies describe what transpired. The struggle of coal miners to unionize the state's southern coal fields is grandly depicted in John Sayles' Matewan, a fine, rough-and-tumble movie starring Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones.

        Strip mining. Strip mining of coal has been a scourge to West Virginia mountains since the days of World War II when reclamation of strip-mined land was non-existent or minimal. The result: ugly, unreclaimed, scarred mountains.

       Abandoned coal mines. West Virginia by far has the most abandoned coal mines of any state, 1,629 as of fiscal year 1997, requiring future expenditures of more than half a billion dollars to reclaim. 

      Reclamation of pre-1977 [pre-SMCRA] abandoned coal mines is paid for by a per-ton fee upon coal being produced, which fee Congress may or may not choose to extend in the future.  Given current federal funding limitations and a future cutoff of fees flowing into the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Trust Fund, decades will be needed to reclaim these mine sites. A recurring funding issue is the unwillingness of the federal government to spend a sizeable portion of the trust fund; rather, the money sits there to help balance the federal budget. 

     The enforcement square. Enforcement of environmental statutes and implementing regulations depends upon four sides. Congress and legislatures create and alter statutes and review regulations. Agencies execute laws and create rules and regulations. Courts interpret laws. Citizens can influence the other three sides and can enforce laws through citizens' lawsuits.

     Citizen power. Under the federal Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 [SMCRA], citizens have a crucial role in keeping regulatory agencies honest and on-the-ball. SMCRA's citizen suit provision is a powerful enforcement tool. Those who favor the status quo, like the plunderers of ancient empires, are scared of powers exercised by ordinary citizens. When united in environmental groups, such as OVEC, citizens keep democracy alive.

     Yet, state regulators use a legal tactic in attempting to disempower citizens from exercising their SMCRA right to sue to enforce the law. The state argues that the citizen suit really is based on state law and is prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. There are federal judges and justices who wish to shrink federal power and who may buy this argument.

     One successful citizens' effort to enforce the law to reclaim strip-mined mountains is told below.

     Performance bonds. For post-1977 abandoned coal mines a forward-looking program of regulation comes into play. Under SMCRA a permit is required to surface-mine coal. The permit applicant is required to file a performance bond "sufficient" to assure completion of the reclamation plan (by the regulatory authority upon forfeiture).

     Under primacy [see below] the state administers the bonding program which is required to meet the purposes of SMCRA. The federal agency --OSM, approves the state's alternative bonding program. The program must assure that there is sufficient money to complete reclamation. 30 CFR sec. 800.11(e).

     West Virginia has a two-tier alternative bonding system. The first tier requires applicants to post a site-specific bond of $5,000 per disturbed acre. Prior to June 2001 the amount was $1,000 - $5,000, and the Legislature set the cap. The second tier creates a bond pool -- the Special Reclamation Fund, financed by a 3-cents-per-ton fee imposed on all active operators. The Legislature refuses to increase the tonnage fee. The first tier is often inadequate to reclaim damaged lands. The second tier is insolvent, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of unfunded liability. The result is an ever-growing number of partially reclaimed, or unreclaimed, abandoned strip mines.

     The primary reason for this debacle is WVDEP's failure to require adequate bonding. That is, bonds set by WVDEP are too small to reclaim the old mines, particularly acid mine drainage. Historically WVDEP asserted that Fund monies are not required to be used for AMD clean-up. The agency's practice spawned a lawsuit by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy against OSM and WVDEP [SDWV civil action no. 2:00-1062]. WVDEP admitted the gross inadequacy of the state's bonding system.

     In April 2001 federal district court judge Charles Haden recognized WVDEP's bonding system for what is was: an abysmal failure. He declared thatt "the West Virginia alternative bonding system is superseded by the federal bonding program."  Litigation continues.    

     For at least a decade OSM has urged WVDEP to fix the bonding system and has threatened takeover. However, th status quo has prevailed. Nobody wants to accept legal responsibility for complying with the law! In an August 2001 opinion Judge Haden condemned the "climate of lawlessness" created by regulators, politicians, and coal operators. Surely smoke can be seen from the pages of that judicial decision!

     Quite simply, OSM doesn't want the massive headache of running WVDEP's bonding program. OSM has given the state a deadline to fix the mess: 45 days after the close of the 2002 legislative session. Judge Haden will keep a watchful eye open. In August 2001 the state agreed with the coal industry to raise the per-ton reclamation fee to 14 cents through 2005 and back to 7 cents thereafter.

     Politics in the mountains. Regulation of strip mining of coal has an interesting political history in West Virginia.

     When a young and idealistic Jay Rockefeller challenged incumbent Arch Moore for the governorship in 1972, strip mining was a hot political issue. Public discussion centered around whether it would be banned. Jay basically said yes and Arch said no. Billboards and commercials caught the eyes of the electorate. The pro-strip mining forces raised the specter of lost jobs, a time-honored scare tactic.

      In the end, as a leading politician of the day commented, Jay lost due to the "three Ms - Moore, Money, and Mining." Moore was popular, Jay wouldn't spend his fortune so as not to appear to be buying the election, and strip mining was a divisive issue.

      Nevertheless, early 1970s political activism in West Virginia resulted in a statewide ban of strip mining in non-producing counties and stimulated the creation of new federal law. 

      West Virginia was not alone in regulating strip mining of coal. In fact, Pennsylvania led the way in 1945 and its statutory scheme continually evolved. 

      Progress in reigning in the abuses of strip mining of coal was slow because the industry resisted regulation.  Failure to impose mining and reclamation standards then meant greater profits for coal companies and greater costs to ordinary citizens now. Today's consumers ultimately will pay the half-billion dollar reclamation bill. 

      Make no mistake about it, the coal industry is a tough guy accustomed to getting its way through its political friends. Witness President Gerald Ford's two-time veto in 1974 and 1975 of the first comprehensive federal statute governing strip mining of coal on privately owned lands.  In 1976, with Ford's defeat, came a new president and a renewed opportunity, and President Jimmy Carter made the surface mining bill a high priority.  

     SMCRA. Under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), [30 U.S. Code sec. 1201 et. seq] mined lands are to be returned to their "approximate original contour," eliminating the infamous L-shaped bench and highwall (by turning the L into a right triangle). After enactment of the statute reclamation improved dramatically, consistent with the federal statute's requirement of restored post-mining land use, but the scale of strip mining grew.

      Anyone who rides in a small airplane for the first time over the southern West Virginia coalfields will see mile after mile of ugly, scalped mountains. It would be like seeing in the 1960s one of the mop-haired Beatles with a skin-head coiffure -- a bizarre sight. In the mining process hundreds of thousands of acres of forests have been skinned and lost.

     While coal mining has provided well-paying jobs, it has destroyed much, too much, of every mountaineer's principal blessing:  majestic mountains. To see diagrams of different types of coal mining you can access the following web site: 

     Primacy. The federal statute set up an approval process by which states could assume "primary regulatory authority"- known as "primacy"- over strip mining by carrying out the purposes of the federal statute. West Virginia's statute, which parrots the language of SMCRA, is the 1994 Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act [W. Va. Code ch. 22, art. 3].

     SMCRA establishes a program of cooperative federalism. States, in accord with federal minimum standards and subject to federal agency oversight, administer their own regulatory programs.

     The state's Division of Environmental Protection (WVDEP or DEP), including its Office of Mining and Reclamation, has full authority to administer the environmental requirements of the federal statute. To this end the state has adopted complementary regulations: Title 38 of Code of State Rules (CSR).   The federal Office of Surface Mining's (OSM), including its Charleston, West Virginia, field office, exercises oversight authority of the state agency's decisions.      

     Little money, little enforcement. Unfortunately OSM has received little support from Congress in recent years. Likewise, WVDEP has been grossly underfunded and understaffed for years. Little money means little enforcement. As long ago as 1991, OSM threatened to take over WVDEP's approved state program because of inadequate staffing.

     In June 2000, to avoid federal takeover of the state program, U.S. Senator Byrd was able to garner $9.8 million, including $3.6 for hiring additional inspectors and other personnel. In July 2000 the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy served the OSM director with a notice threatening a lawsuit to compel OSM to take over the WVDEP program. To save his agency, Governor Underwood found a few million dollars in his contingency fund in September 2000.

     Inadequate staffing remains a serious problem for WVDEP.

     OSM annual state program oversight reports are at: These reports provide a big-picture view of coal mining.
Last updated on Tuesday, September 4, 2001