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.
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.
The CWA set standards for a host of parameters associated with coal mining, with individual states setting standards for other parameters to preserve in-stream water quality. The CWA allows for individual states to discharge provided the state regulatory programs maintain minimum standards established in the statute and regulations implemented by the EPA.
The Reclamation Process
The reclamation process begins before the first shovel of dirt is ever disturbed or any coal is extracted on a mining site. As part of the permitting process, coal companies analyze all aspects of the mining area that could potentially impact the long-term environmental setting of a proposed coal mine. This includes analysis of the surrounding topography and land uses in order to determine an appropriate post-mining use of the reclaimed land. The soil, rock mechanics and chemical characteristics of the overburden and coal are reviewed to determine whether any material requires special handling and/or isolation to prevent the formation of acid mine drainage or other, non-complaint discharges. All of this is used to design the proposed mining plan, the design of the reclamation plan and the final configuration of the post-mining area.
Once the SMCRA surface mining permits and associated authorizations under the CWA are received, including the Section 402 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and usually a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, development of the mining operation begins with initial excavation. As mining progresses within the coal reserve area, the overburden excavated to expose the coal is used to reclaim the previously mined areas by backfilling the mining pits and restoring the approximate contour of the undisturbed area. Once the mined areas have been “backfilled and graded” revegetation begins, depending on the climate and setting of the mine. In the West, this can be to prairie standards, in the Midwest to farmland and in Appalachia to native hardwood forest.
Other reclamation efforts such as those advocated by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative1 have aided the reestablishment of native hardwood tree growth in the eastern United States by allowing for less compacted backfill material on the reclamation area and the initial planting of ground cover that stabilizes the mined area but does not out-compete the tree plantings.
Since reclamation is a primary component of the modern coal regulatory program, activity on the mining site does not cease when coal removal is completed. The mining permit and the jurisdiction of the various regulatory programs continue until the reclamation plan specified in the permit is satisfied.
Abandoned Mines Reclamation Program
The Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) reclamation program was created under Title IV of the SMCRA regulations. It is funded by a fee assessed on each ton of coal produced. The program initially authorized collection of reclamation fees for 15 years following the date of enactment (Aug. 3, 1977). Coal mining operations have paid $11.1 billion into the fund over the past 42 years.
Of the $11.1 billion collected, OSMRE has distributed $7.3 billion in AML grants to states and tribes from the collected fees. An additional $1.4 billion was transferred to United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) Health and Retirement Funds, and $1.7 billion has been used for OSMRE operating expenses. Over $2.4 billion of the fund remains unappropriated.2
Post-Mining Land Use/Public Private Partnerships
Early in the development of modern surface mining techniques, both industry and federal and state regulators recognized the unique potential for coal extraction to facilitate the development of higher and better uses for the land affected by mining operations. This was particularly true in the steeply sloped terrain of northern and central Appalachia where flat land suitable for development of any kind outside of the normal floodplain was limited or nonexistent. Even before the passage of SMCRA, individual states were encouraging reclamation of surface-mined lands to allow for residential and commercial development to further diversify the areas. After the enactment of the federal surface mining law, redevelopment requirements and standards were formally codified.
Recently, the opportunity for post-mining improvement has been coordinated with other development projects, including highway construction. In West Virginia, surface-mined areas were configured to meet federal highway construction standards and the routes of planned corridors were altered slightly to match the profile of the planned mining areas.
The coal mining construction activities saved an estimated $150 million of the total anticipated $339 million construction cost of the 12-mile Red Jacket section of the King Coal Highway in West Virginia and also accelerated the completion of the project. The start date for the section was advanced to 2004 from 2009, and the construction schedule was shortened by one year.
This is an important project, but not the only example. Several other development areas were constructed adjacent to the highway right of way to facilitate additional development, including a high school that moved children from older schools built in a flood plain to a modern mountaintop facility, a regional airport facility and several other sites for future development.
Coal mining in West Virginia is now routinely included in the economic and land use planning for the state’s counties. Local economic development authorities see mining as an effective partner in economic development, and many key sites around the state are the direct result of surface mining that allowed the property to be developed at reasonable costs.
In the decades since the passage of SMCRA and the Clean Water Act, there have been major advancements in the restoration of former mine operations and improvements for local communities as well as for flora and fauna. From the restoration of the American chestnut tree to its natural range to the reintroduction of deer, elk, bear and other native species using former mine lands as the introduction points, to the cooperation of coal companies with economic development efforts, the value of mining is enhanced by these advancements.
Jason Bostic is vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.