Coal Was Mined Here: A Profile of Modern Reclamation

By Jason Bostic, West Virginia Coal Association

The Evolution of Reclamation Practices

Like the coal industry, reclamation practices have evolved over time. As the coal industry advanced, using more efficient means of production, including a greater reliance on surface mining techniques, so too the practices of reclamation have advanced.

Early reclamation of underground mining areas focused on the demolition of surface facilities like tipples and loading structures and the basic elimination of the underground entries and mine bench areas. Reclamation of coal refuse areas resulting from the physical separation of rock and shale from the underground coal mine was centered on stability and “capping” the areas with rock to prevent combustion.

West Virginia enacted the nation’s first reclamation requirements for surface mines and the surface areas of underground mines. Soon, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Indiana followed.

These initial reclamation laws and regulations focused on stabilizing mined areas and restoring the original contour of the post-mining area. Revegetation requirements sought to establish growth as quickly as possible to stabilize the land, which usually meant a reliance on non-native, fast-growing species that would quickly root and flourish.

Efforts to control runoff and discharges also focused on stabilization of the former mining areas to prevent erosion-driven stream deposits. Protecting streams and water quality was addressed by routing the water as efficiently as possible away from the mining area and reclaiming the exposed overburden or coal refuse to prevent precipitation-driven runoff.

Mining laws and regulations changed as mining changed. The most significant changes were the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act in 1977 (SMCRA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972.

Cooperative Federalism

SMCRA sought to establish national standards of minimum reclamation requirements for a rapidly expanding surface coal mining industry, including the development of large surface mining operations in the western United States, primarily the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

SMCRA used a cooperative federalism approach to both surface and underground coal mining regulation, establishing minimum standards for permit requirements, environmental performance and enforcement standards during mining and reclamation. This approach also mandates including the use of bonds to assure completion of reclamation should mining cease and the coal mining operator be unable to complete reclamation. Individual states could regulate the effects of surface mining if they established regulatory programs that were as effective as the federal standards. SMCRA also created the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to regulate coal mining in states that choose not to establish their own programs and to conduct oversight
to assure the effectiveness of state-implemented programs.

It is important to note that when SMCRA was enacted, states were encouraged to develop reclamation practices suited for their particular climate, topography and land development needs, such as prime farmland in the Midwest, flat land suitable for redevelopment in Appalachia and grazing lands in the West.