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Ensuring Mined Land Is Restored

For many years, one of the biggest frustrations of officials in charge of programs to reclaim land where mining occurred has been inability to hold coal company owners personally responsible.

A substantial amount of property devastated by mining has to be reclaimed with taxpayers’ money for that reason.

What sometimes happens is this: A mining company shuts down, perhaps filing for bankruptcy protection. It simply doesn’t have the money to reclaim land on which it operated, executives tell bankruptcy judges.

Then, a few months or years later, a new coal company opens. Its owners happen to be the same people who skipped out on reclamation at the closed firm. Yet the law holds their old company, not them, liable.

Among the largest mining companies in West Virginia at one time was Alpha Natural Resources. The firm failed and declared bankruptcy. As part of reorganization, a substantial amount of the company’s assets, many of them in western states, was sold to a new firm, Contura Energy.

Contura is run by six former Alpha executives.

Meanwhile, Alpha has emerged from bankruptcy and is ready to resume some operations — except for a revelation made earlier this year. It seems the company is facing about $100 million in “unaccounted for obligations.”  Holding Alpha to those commitments, including some for reclamation, could doom the firm before it ever gets back off the ground.

Now, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has filed a complaint against Alpha in federal bankruptcy court. In essence, the DEP wants to be able to hold the six former Alpha executives now with Contura liable if Alpha is unable to keep its reclamation commitments.

Should the court allow it, that could give Contura serious problems in obtaining mining permits elsewhere in the United States.

Contura officials insist the DEP’s position is “without merit.”

But is it?

Obviously, this is a complex situation. Sorting it out will not be easy, especially if the Contura/Alpha executives throw obstacles into the bankruptcy court’s way.

It needs to be resolved, however.

Many West Virginians probably assumed the days of coal company executives dodging their responsibilities were over. If that is not so, we need to know about it — and the state Legislature and perhaps Congress need to so something about it. We want no return to the bad old days of Mountain State residents wondering how coal companies were able to ravage our land with impunity.

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