Virginia officials, responding to federal criticism about lax strip mine reclamation practices, agreed yesterday to press for emergency legislation early next year to require stiffer penalties for environmental abuses by surface mine operators in Virginia's coalfields.
The agreement apparently ended a protracted battle between Virginia and the Interior Department. The clash began last summer when the federal agency seized control of authority to police strip mines and other coal operations in the state's Appalachian region. Federal officials had accused the state of failing to punish mining companies for environmental abuses.
In addition to backing the new legislation, Virginia officials said they have taken steps to speed up issuance of new mining permits. The new permits would replace older ones that the state contends are not governed by federally backed penalty provisions. This action, officials said, may lead to more stringent enforcement of environmental regulations before the proposed legislation takes effect.
In exchange for Virginia's agreement, Interior's Office of Surface Mining announced it would begin withdrawing U.S. mine inspectors dispatched to the state's coalfields as part of the federal takeover.
Nine additional federal inspectors have been sent to the state's mountainous southwestern region. The federal agency said that it would withdraw one inspector for every 100 new surface mining permits "processed" by the state and that it would remove the remaining inspectors as soon as the new Virginia legislation is enacted. A spokesman for the state's mine reclamation agency said yesterday that since February only 14 new permits have been issued to Virginia's nearly 700 surface-mining operations.
Strip mining abuses have stirred repeated controversies in Virginia, where the coal industry is a powerful economic and political force. Critics contend that the state has been traditionally lax in regulating coal mining. Virginia went to court to challenge the landmark 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, upheld by the Supreme Court last year.
The law is aimed at preventing flooding, soil erosion, water pollution, landslides and other environmental harm in coal-mining regions. The federal takeover in Virginia last summer marked the first such action against any coal-producing state.
Virginia officials said they expect the new legislation to win swift approval, partly because leaders of the two main industry groups, said they probably "will not oppose" the measure. Environmentalists could not be reached yesterday for comment.