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Strict Regulations Govern Coal Mining

Source: Information modified from the American Coal Foundation

Because coal mining can have a number of significant impacts on the surrounding environment and miners, coal producers are required to go through a complicated process for obtaining local, sate, and federal permits to mine.

Coal mining is one of the most extensively regulated industries in the United States. Before one shovel of earth can be turned, or one ton of coal removed from the ground, a company must comply with literally hundreds of laws and thousands of regulations. Meeting all the requirements is arduous and time-consuming, even for the most efficient and well-managed companies. As long as 10 years can elapse between the start of planning a mine and mining the first ton of coal.

The process begins with a mining company providing detailed information about such activities as how the coal will be mined, and the land reclaimed; the quality and quantity of surface and underground sources of water and how mining activities will affect them; and how the coal will be transported from the mine and how that will affect the area.

Surface mining operators also must consider the soil and prevailing climatological conditions prior to mining, because the land has to be returned to approximately the same physical contour, and to a state of productivity equal to or better than the pre-mining condition. Wildlife habitats cannot be permanently disrupted, and archeological resources must be protected. The principal federal surface mining law sets forth 25 reclamation requirements for operators to meet. These include public hearings and procedures for obtaining permits. To make certain that lands being mined will be restored, the law requires companies to post bonds, as high as $10,000 per acre, to cover reclamation.

Concern for the environment was not always a high priority for the coal industry or our society as a whole. Consequently, in some areas of the country abandoned mines dot the landscape. Their operators simply stopped mining because the coal seam was exhausted, they were bankrupt, or for some other reason they no longer could or would mine coal. To restore these "orphan lands," and eliminate unsightly and unsafe conditions, today's coal producers pay a special tax on every ton of coal they produce. The money, which goes into the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, provides financing for reclamation projects initiated by state agencies.

Coal mining companies work hard to maintain the environment. The law requires it, but they also understand that the right to remove coal carries with it a great responsibility. Based on Office of Surface Mining data, it is estimated that mined lands totaling an area greater than the size of the state of Delaware have been reclaimed since 1977. Over time, as today's coal producers pay for the shortsightedness of their predecessors with their tax contributions to the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, the percentage of lands reclaimed will rise.

Regulation of Surface Mining.
As long ago as the 1930s some states had reclamation laws on their books. But in the late 1970s, when there was significant energy development activity in the West, Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which mandated strict regulation of surface mining. It because the first comprehensive national surface mining law, and a tough one.

The most extensive regulations affecting surface mining are a consequence of SMCRA. Under the law, individual states which establish federally approved enforcement programs have the primary responsibility for enforcing mining regulations in their jurisdictions. Where no such programs exist, the federal law is implemented by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in the Department of Interior.

Other federal laws with significant impact are the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. In addition, each state where surface mining occurs has its own set of laws and regulations.

Beyond the specific requirements of the federal laws already noted, many other legislative acts affect some or all surface mining in this country:

  • American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
  • Antiquities Act of 1906
  • Archeological Nd Historical Preservation Act of 1974
  • Archeological Salvage Act
  • Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1969
  • Endangered Species Act of 1963
  • Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1934
  • Forest and Rangeland Resources Planning Act of 1974
  • Historic Preservation Act of 1966
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918
  • Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970
  • Multiple Use - Sustained Yield Act of 1960
  • National Forests Management Act of 1976
  • National Trails System Act
  • Noise Control Act of 1976
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974
  • Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
  • Wilderness Act of 1964

In directing the states to enforce the federal surface mining law, Congress recognized that effective coal mining regulation must take into account local conditions and problems unique to certain areas. To a large degree, that process has worked well. Where problems exist, they are generally caused by a handful of irresponsible operators, who flout the law and take the coal without preserving the land.

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