MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Eighteen environmental, civic and religious groups said Monday that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has failed to properly regulate surface mining for decades, and it's time the federal government step in.
The state and national groups - including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and Catholic Committee of Appalachia - say the DEP has shown "callous disregard" for both the environment and federal law. It also has spent nearly $1 million between November 2010 and November 2012 fighting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the groups say, "to protect the mining industry at the expense of public health and the environment."
In a 100-page petition, the groups ask the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement to investigate and temporarily take over the regulatory program the state has run since 1981. The groups cite chronic failures at virtually every level of oversight, from permitting and inspection to insufficient water-quality and fines that are too small to deter violations.
DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the agency had not yet reviewed the petition, but that West Virginia has been a leader in mining regulation.
"Many aspects of the federal regulatory program originated from regulations that already existed in West Virginia's program," she said in a statement shortly after the petition was delivered Monday morning.
They include restoring mined lands to their approximate original contour, flood prevention, reforestation of mined lands and a protocol to protect the endangered Indiana bat from mining's effects, Cosco said.
OSM spokesman Chris Holmes said the agency had not yet studied the petition, "but we assure everyone that we will examine all of their concerns and handle them in a manner appropriate to the Surface Mining Act."
"OSM appreciates and takes seriously the concerns of all citizens living and working in coalfield communities," Holmes said in an emailed statement. "We have discovered that often, the most qualified people to report on a potential problem are the ones who are closest to them, and that is the basis of our system of handling citizen complaints."
The groups announced the petition at a news conference in Charleston as part of a new campaign called CARE, or Citizen Action for Real Enforcement.
The petition says that while DEP has cited at least 6,300 violations of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, since 2006, "many more violations have been ignored and unenforced."
"These failures can no longer be tolerated," the petition says, noting 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," they say, "nor the stakes higher."
Federal law allows coal-producing states to regulate surface mining operations within their borders, and West Virginia is one of 24 that has such "primacy," or primary responsibility. OSM is the regulatory agency in Tennessee and Washington state.