CHARLESTON (AP) - A federal agency said Monday that it will examine five aspects of West Virginia's regulation of surface coal mining in response to a petition by 18 environmental, civic and religious groups.
The state and national groups - including the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and Catholic Committee of Appalachia - claimed in a petition last June that the state Department of Environmental Protection has shown "callous disregard" for both the environment and federal law. They cited chronic failures in oversight, from permitting to inspection, and fines that are too small to deter violations.
The organizations lodged 19 allegations and asked the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to investigate and temporarily take over the regulatory program the state runs under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.
In a letter, the federal agency told the groups that it dismissed 14 allegations but determined the other five warrant further investigation. Regulations prohibit the federal takeover sought by the petitioners without further evaluation, the agency said.
"The analysis we shared with the petitioners today represents the next step in a process prescribed by the regulations," said Joe Pizarchik, the agency's director.
The DEP said the federal agency's response was reasonable.
"Most of the petitioners' claims were rightly dismissed by OSM," the DEP said in a written statement. "The remaining five issues OSM chose to review appropriately fall into the annual review of specific program areas they evaluate every year. Claims to take over the program or revoke federal approval are unwarranted and today's response from OSM was appropriate and expected."
The areas the federal agency will examine involve storm water runoff analysis, citations for Clean Water Act violations, regulation of water pollution from selenium, flooding caused by runoff, and soil handling.
The agency said some of the dismissed allegations raised issues outside its purview while others were not supported by evidence or were based on a misinterpretation of program requirements.
James G. Murphy, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation and one of two recipients of the letter, said he was generally pleased with the response.
"Some of the claims they are looking at are the biggest faults with the program and some of the most glaring ones," he said. "It's a very positive step forward. If they do it expeditiously and correctly it will lead to better oversight of some of the pretty egregious practices that are occurring in West Virginia.
The petitioners claimed that while DEP has cited at least 6,300 violations of the federal surface mining law since 2006, many more violations have been ignored or unenforced. They noted that huge swaths of southern West Virginia have been permanently scarred and tens of thousands of additional acres are at risk.
"The situation could not be more dire, nor the stakes higher," the petition said.
It also claimed DEP regularly issues or renews permits even when operators have uncorrected violations, allows companies to begin mining after permits have expired and fails to conduct monthly unannounced inspections of mine sites required by law.