Reclamation changed in 1970s

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 16, 2009 

Surface mining in the steep-sided hills of Appalachia stretches back generations, but the practice expanded rapidly through the 1960s and '70s because of advances in methods and machinery to uncover coal.

In 1971, surface production outstripped underground tonnage statewide for the first time, state statistics show.

By then, Eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia had experienced significant environmental damage from surface mining.

Coal companies routinely pushed and dumped spoil — rock and dirt dislodged to uncover seams of coal — over slopes, causing serious erosion and landslides that sometimes threatened homes. Blasting damaged homes and water supplies. Throughout the coalfields, there were scarred hills and streams fouled by sediment and mine drainage, according to congressional findings.

As the damage mounted, citizens and environmentalists pushed for stricter oversight and better reclamation standards. There were calls to ban mining on steep slopes in Appalachia, but the coal industry pushed back.

After years of bitter debate and presidential vetoes, Congress in 1977 approved sweeping changes in surface-mining rules. President Jimmy Carter signed the law.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) included more regulatory oversight, tougher environmental standards, a voice for citizens in decisions on granting mining permits, and new reclamation rules.

One key change was that, with limited exceptions, companies had to put spoil back on the mined area and grade it to restore the mountain's approximate original contour — the general configuration, slope and elevation it had had before mining.

The goal was to stabilize the ground and stop landslides.

To make sure mined areas were stable, coal companies compacted the ground tightly by driving heavy equipment over it. Then, they sowed grass and other ground covers.

That's why hundreds of thousands of acres of what was once hilly forest in Appalachia became grassland as smooth as a golf course. Coal companies saw land for hay and pasture, as well as fish and wildlife habitat (which includes grassy areas), as the cheapest, easiest ways to reclaim land so they could get back bond money they post to guarantee reclamation.

In some cases, companies can get a waiver, called a variance, so they don't have to restore the approximate original contour of mined hills.

One such exception is mountaintop removal, in which companies blast off the entire top of a mountain to uncover a layer of coal. Companies can leave the land flat or gently rolling after mountaintop-removal mining.

If they plan to do that, companies are supposed to prove that the land will be used to develop industrial, commercial, residential, agricultural or public facilities, such as recreation areas, afterward.

The intent of Congress was to create a use that would compensate for not putting back the mountain.

Mountaintop mining — not just mountaintop removal — remains controversial because it creates excess spoil that coal companies put into valleys near the area being mined, often burying natural stream areas.

Those are called valley fills. Companies create fills because they can't put all the rock and dirt back on the mined area. The material swells when it is blasted away, so there is more total volume of rock and dirt than when it was in the ground.

Surface mining still accounts for tens of millions of tons of coal production in Kentucky annually, but underground mining regained the lead in production after SMCRA was passed.

The conflict that marked efforts to pass stronger surface-mining rules in the 1970s continues, however.

Just last week, a federal judge denied a request by the Obama administration to undo a change the Bush administration made in rules on putting mine spoil in stream areas.

State and federal regulators have said that SMCRA and its enforcement brought landmark changes, ending widespread erosion and landslides; improving water quality; and setting up a way to reclaim mined sites that coal companies abandoned before the law.

"I cannot imagine what our nation's land and water resources would be today if it were not for SMCRA," Earl Bandy, an OSM official, said in testimony to Congress in 2007.

Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the law fixed some of the worst abuses of the 1960s and '70s.

But federal and state regulators have not made coal companies put as much spoil back on mined areas as they should have, leaving more to go into fills and eliminate natural stream areas, FitzGerald said.

Regulators also have not properly enforced rules against dumping spoil into portions of streams, nor have they assessed for the cumulative impact of mining operations on watersheds as the law requires, environmentalists argue.

"Implementation of the law has fallen far short of what Congress intended," FitzGerald said.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said regulators require the industry to keep valley fills as small as possible and that companies work to do that.

Coal-industry officials acknowledge that active surface mining can look ugly.

But the industry does a good job reclaiming the land, Caylor said.

"The environment does recover," he said. "You may change it, but it comes back and it's a healthy ecosystem."

Others, however, argue that surface mining in Appalachia causes permanent environmental impacts.

"The impacts of mountaintop removal with valley fills are immense and irreversible ... ," Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland professor, told a congressional subcommittee in June. "The mountain summits that are removed to reach the coal may not have the same shape or height they previously did, the streams that are buried when rocks and dirt are dumped over the side of the mountain into the valleys below are gone forever, and there is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are destroyed."

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