The federal agency responsible for regulating strip-mining is a "spectacular failure" that cannot be saved by anything short of a massive management overhaul and the personal attention of Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, a major environmental group charged yesterday.
The National Wildlife Federation, in a scathing 82-page report on federal efforts to prevent coal strip-mining abuses, said the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining is in a "state of chaos" that has left it incapable of enforcing the law or carrying out court orders.
The federation also warned that efforts to improve the program by increasing its budget "will be wasted unless management is revamped, morale improved and clear leadership provided."
Interior officials acknowledged yesterday that OSM has had problems, but said a recently announced "realignment" of the agency is expected to go a long way toward improving effectiveness.
Jay D. Hair, the federation's executive vice president, said Hodel "appears to have recognized the need for reform." But he noted that the office has had six directors in eight years -- three in the last several months -- and said the federation believed stronger action was in order.
"In almost every major coal state, OSM is aware of significant violations of the law and has failed to stop them," Hair said. "We think a comprehensive housecleaning needs to occur."
The federation's report, based largely on court documents, state reports and congressional hearing records, said thousands of mine operators are still despoiling streams and denuding hillsides with the rip-and-run practices that led Congress to enact a national strip-mining law eight years ago.
Thousands more are evading the law by illegally claiming exemptions from the law's environmental standards, the report said. Among the most prevalent is the use of the two-acre provision, intended to exempt small, family-owned "pick-and-shovel" operations from the requirements of the law.
Instead, the report said, large operators have strung small pits along a coal seam like a "string of pearls" or have created "shell corporations" that collectively mine large tracts while claiming individually to be exempt under the two-acre provision.
"Major damage has been done since the act was passed," said Norman L. Dean, who directed the study for the federation. "There are continuing, flagrant violations of the strip-mining law, and the people who violate it are getting away with it."
Among the report's findings:
*More than half of the 4,000 orders the office has issued to halt mining abuses have simply been ignored. The agency is under court order to speed compliance with the orders, but the federation found that "the number of unabated cessation orders has actually increased, not decreased" since the first court order in 1982.
*More than $200 million in penalties have been assessed, but only $8 million collected, despite court orders to speed the process.
*Similarly, the agency has been unable to comply with a 1984 court order to take action on about 2,000 cases involving willfull violation of the law by corporate mining officials. Then-Secretary William P. Clark gave the agency additional resources to comply with the order, but "OSM bungled the effort, and expended an estimated $2 million in the process," the report said.
The Office of Surface Mining has been enmeshed in controversy since it was established in 1978. The debate became more heated under the Reagan administration, which began its tenure by trying to rewrite and weaken more than 90 percent of the strip-mining rules.
Most of the revisions have been tossed out in federal court, but federation officials charged yesterday that the agency is "repeating its past mistakes" in its efforts to revise the rules a second time.