Coal Resource Development

Posted: Oct 6, 2010


Coal is a fossil fuel formed from the decomposition of organic materials that have been subjected to geologic heat and pressure over millions of years. Coal mining is a major industry in the United States and most of the coal mined in the U.S. is used to produce electricity. Coal mining in the U.S. is regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Enacted in 1977, SMCRA has led to the development of strict regulations in the industry. Other federal laws that affect the coal mining industry include:

  • National Historic Preservation Act (1966), which governs the preservation of historic properties throughout the United States
  • National Environmental Policy Act  (1969), which requires environmental review of major federal actions affecting the environment
  • Endangered Species Act (1973), which governs the protection of threatened and endangered species
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), which governs the control of hazardous wastes
  • Clean Water Act  (1977), which regulates the discharge of pollutants into water
  • Clean Air Act (1990), which regulates the discharge of pollutants into the air
  • Other regulations vary from state to state but typically include coal surface mining and reclamation laws, environmental policy acts, surface water discharge permits, construction permits, air quality permits, solid waste disposal, and mine operating permits.


Key Concepts 

Leasable Minerals 

Federally owned coal (as well as oil, gas, oil shale and coalbed methane) is a “leasable” mineral. All these minerals were originally "locatable" minerals, which could be developed for free on federal lands under the General Mining Law of 1872 (see “Hardrock Mining” page). The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 (MLA) removed the energy minerals from the "free access" rule of the 1872 Mining Law. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has discretion to lease these minerals on all federal lands. The MLA does not specifically mention coalbed methane, but it is generally leased as part of the gas resource. For more information about oil and gas leasing and development, see the “Oil and Gas Resource Development” page. 

Responsible Agencies 

Several federal agencies are involved in coal development:

  • The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), a branch of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for implementing and enforcing SMCRA. The actual regulation of coal mines is primarily done on a state level (see “State Regulation” below), but the OSM is charged with approving, monitoring and funding state programs to ensure that they meet federal standards. OSM functions as the primary regulatory body on Indian lands and in states that do not have approved programs.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for leasing coal on about 570 million acres of BLM, national forest and other federal lands, as well as private lands where the mineral rights have been retained by the federal government. The BLM supervises the exploration, development and production operations for coal on both federal and Indian lands. Regulations that govern the BLM's coal leasing program are in Title 43, Groups 3000 and 3400 of the Code of Federal Regulations. For information about Management of Coal Mining on Indian lands, see the Memorandum of Understanding between OSM, BLM & BIA.
  • Other land management agencies—the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or National Park Service—participate in leasing and development decisions on lands that they manage. Click to view the Memorandum of Understanding between OSM and USFS (pdf).
  • Revenue Management Program (MRM) is part of the U.S Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).  The MRM collects, accounts for and distributes revenues associated with oil, gas and mineral production (both onshore and offshore) from leased federal and Indian lands.
  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) manages coal revenues for tribal members with Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts while the Office of the Trustee for American Indians (OST) provides oversight to protect and preserve trust assets and collect and accurately account for income due beneficiaries.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ultimately responsible for implementing environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, to control impacts of coal development, although states and tribes acting as states implement programs under these laws.
State Regulation and Federal Oversight 

Like most environmental statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s, SMCRA uses a cooperative federalism approach under which states are expected to take the lead in regulation while the federal government oversees their efforts. Under SMCRA, the OSM can approve a state regulatory program, which gives the state the authority to regulate mining operations, if the state demonstrates that its laws and regulations are at least as strict as SMCRA, and that it has a regulatory agency with the wherewithal to operate the program. Currently, most coal-mining states have approved programs. Those states issue their own permits, inspect their mines, and take enforcement action themselves when necessary. In states without approved programs, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, and on Indian reservations, the OSM performs those functions. The OSM is required to regulate surface coal mining on federal lands (which include 60 percent of the coal reserves in the West), but can enter into cooperative agreements with states with approved programs.

Mechanics of Strip Mining 

There are five main types of surface coal mining techniques: area mining, open pit mining, contour mining, auger mining, and mountaintop removal. Terrain, economics, and custom generally dictate which technique an operator chooses. All surface or strip mining uses several basic steps:

  1. Removal of surface vegetation (trees, bushes, etc.)
  2. Removal of topsoil, usually by bulldozers or scrapers and loaders. The operator either stockpiles the topsoil for later use in reclamation or spreads it over an area that already has been mined.
  3. The exposed overburden (the mining term for the rock, subsoil, soil, and vegetation overlying the coal seam) is drilled and blasted, and removed by bulldozers, shovels, bucketwheel excavators, or draglines, de pending on the amount of overburden and the type of mining.
  4. Fracture the exposed coal seam by blasting.
  5. Load the fractured coal onto trucks or conveyor belts and transport to processing.
  6. The overburden or spoil that was removed during the mining process is deposited on a previously mined area, graded, and compacted. (Special handling may be necessary if any of the overburden contains toxic materials, such as acid or alkaline producing materials.)
  7. Any excess overburden that remains after the mined area is completely backfilled is deposited in a fill, or disposal area.
  8. Redistributes the topsoil and seed and revegetate the mined area.

Area Mining 

area_mining.pngArea mining is the technique most often employed in the flat or gently rolling countryside of the Midwest and western United States. Area mines excavate large rectangular pits, developed in a series of smaller, side-by-side parallel strips, or “cuts,” which may extend several hundred yards in width and more than a mile in length. Area mining begins by stripping vegetation and removing “topsoil” (the surface portion of the soil, from 6 to 20 inches in depth) and then removing the “overburden” (material of any nature that lies on top of a coal deposit) in an initial rectangular cut (called the “box cut”). The operator places the “spoil” (the non-ore material that has been removed to gain access to the mineral) from the initial box cut on the side away from the direction in which mining will progress. After extracting the coal from the first cut, the operator makes a second, parallel cut. The operator places the overburden from the second cut into the trench created by the first cut and grades and compacts the spoil. The backfilled pit is then covered with topsoil and seeded. This process continues along parallel strips of land as long as it is economically feasible to recover coal.

When the operator reaches the last cut, the only spoil remaining to fill this cut is the overburden from the initial or box cut. However, the box cut spoil may lie several miles from the last cut, so trucking the box cut spoil to the last cut may be more expensive than establishing a permanent water impoundment in the last cut. These “last cut lakes” are commonplace in the coal regions of the Midwest but may pose environmental and land use problems. See Process Essentials: Region-Specific Environmental Effects/Problems, Midwestern Mining.

Open Pit Mining 

Open pit mining is similar to area mining. The technique is common in the western United States (and other parts of the world) where very thick (50-100 foot) coal seams exist. Open pit mines are usually large operations. Production levels may exceed 10 million tons of coal per year. The thick coal seams found at these large mines ensure that the amount of land disturbed for each ton of coal produced is much smaller than for most Eastern and Midwestern mines. Nonetheless, the sheer size and capacity of these mines necessitates substantial surface disturbance. 

open_pit_mining.pngIn open pit mining, large machines remove the overburden in successive layers until the coal seam is exposed. The overburden may be placed on adjacent, undisturbed land, or it may be transported by belt or rail to the other end of the same mine or to an exhausted mine that needs to be backfilled. Typically, several different pits, at various stages of development or reclamation, are being worked at any given time on a single site. The operator then extracts the coal and transports it to a power plant or to a rail line for shipment to a power plant. Next, the operator backfills the pit with previously extracted overburden and grades it. Topsoil that either has been saved or transported from the ongoing operation is spread over the spoil, and the area is seeded. 

The amount of spoil available to backfill an open pit mine may not be sufficient to replace the large coal seams extracted from such mines. Thus, operators frequently fail to return an open pit mine to its approximate original contour. 

Contour Mining 

The contour method is used almost exclusively in the steep Appalachian region of the United States, where coal seams outcrop from the sides of hills or mountains. Contour mining makes cuts on the slope where the coal seam is located, to remove first the overburden and then the coal itself. Overburden from adjacent cuts is used to fill previous cuts. The operator continues making cuts until the ratio of overburden to coal becomes uneconomical. The operation then continues along the contour of the mountain until the coal resources, or the operator's resources, are exhausted.

Because contour mining uses small earth-moving equipment such as power shovels, backhoes and bulldozers (similar to equipment used for many other kinds of construction activities), it is a favorite technique of small, often undercapitalized operators in Appalachia. 

Auger Mining 

Auger mining usually takes place in conjunction with a contour mining operation. Once the contour operator reaches the point where the height of the highwall (the face of the exposed overburden and coal seam in an open cut of a surface coal mining activity or for entry to underground mining activities) makes it uneconomical to remove further overburden, the operator may choose to extract further coal, before beginning reclamation, by drilling into the face of the highwall with a mining auger. Large diameter drill bits, which can be broken into relatively small lengths, may bore as much as 200 feet into a coal seam, thereby extracting as much as 60% of the coal resources. Because auger mining removes support for the materials above it, care must be taken to fill the auger holes after extracting the coal. Failure to fill auger holes may cause tension cracks and other problems on the surface above the coal seam.

Mountaintop Removal 

mountaintop-removal520.jpgMountaintop removal, which is used increasingly in Appalachia, allows operators remove entire mountaintops to reach the coal seam lying underneath it. Mountaintop removal requires more capital and engineering skill than the contour mining method, thus, it became possible only after technology evolved and the economics of mining changed to allow greater stripping ratios (the unit amount of spoil or overburden that must be removed to gain access to a unit amount of coal, generally expressed in cubic yards of overburden to raw tons of coal). Because this technique allows the operator to extract virtually the entire coal seam, today it is economical to remove as much as 1,000 feet of mountain to reach a sizable coal seam. For more information read the Mountaintop Mining Factbook.

diagram_of_mtr.pngMountaintop removal is a controversial mining method that generates an enormous amount of spoil, and unlike every other technique, none of the mined area is backfilled. What used to be the top of the mountain becomes a large, flat plateau. Because steep mountain grades make restoring the natural contour of the mountain impossible, SMCRA provided an exception to the normal rule that post-mining land must be restored to its approximate original contour. Instead, the operator typically places the spoil in a “fill” in an adjacent valley or hollow. The environmental effects of valley fills are discussed further under the Process Essentials: Environmental Effects, and in the Strip Mining Handbook in Chapter 2 (Mountaintop Removal). For more information about the controversy surrounding mountain top removal, see Controversies: Mountain Top Removal

after_mtr.jpgExplore, a website produced by a variety of Appalachian citizen groups. This website provides information about the effects of mountain top mining and contains a detailed multimedia page, which includes comprehensive maps of mountaintop removal sites.

Also, take a look at Earthjustice – Campaign to Stop Mountaintop Removal for information on efforts to strop Mountaintop Removal. 

Underground Mining 

The use of underground mining has been declining as a percentage of all coal mining, but it still accounts for approximately 31 percent of coal mining (as of 2007). An underground coal mine usually begins much like a contour mine, with a cut into the side of a hill. In fact, many abandoned surface mines serve as the face for the underground mine. The operator digs several portals into the coal seam at the base of the highwall. These portals serve both as entryways for the mine and for ventilation.

Underground mining can take various forms. Traditionally, operators used a room-and-pillar method whereby large pillars of coal were left in place to hold up the roof and protect the miners. In retreat mining, operators return to the mine after it was otherwise completed to extract the coal pillars and allow the roof to subside (surface collapse or depression caused by underground excavations) while retreating toward the coal portals. In recent years, the majority of underground mines have moved to a process called longwall mining, which uses powerful coal extraction machinery and hydraulic lifts to remove the entire coal seam during the initial mining operation. A cutting machine shaves coal from the face of the seam while hydraulic lifts support the roof near the working face. When the hydraulic lifts move forward, the unsupported overburden collapses behind it, causing the ground surface to subside. This collapsing of the surface above the mine is called planned subsidence. Because of the nature of the machinery that is used, longwall mining is only practical where the coal seam is of relatively uniform thickness. For more information on the effects of subsidence, see Process Essentials: Environmental Effects.

Impact of Mining Roads 

mtrfacts1.jpgMining roads cause additional land disturbance outside the actual mining area and the dust and particles from roads are a significant source of air pollution. SMCRA contains standards for construction and maintenance of mining roads. All roads must be located on benches, ridges, or other available flat land or stable slopes — and away from the valley bottom wherever possible. No roads may be located in stream beds without the express approval of the regulatory authority. The design and construction of any road used to haul coal or spoil must be certified by a registered professional engineer (PE). Finally, all roads must be properly drained to protect against erosion.

SMCRA requires that all operators obtain a valid permit in order to mine. To obtain a permit, an operator must show an ability to successfully reclaim the land in compliance with the standards of SMCRA and must provide a bond in case reclamation fails to comply with such standards. SMCRA flatly prohibits mining on lands where reclamation under the Act's standards is not technologically or economically possible. Proper compliance with SMCRA’s reclamation requirements can help minimize the environmental harm associated with strip mining.

Reclamation generally proceeds in three phases, which correspond to the three phases of bond release: (1) backfilling and grading; (2) revegetation; and (3) full reclamation under the standards of SMCRA. More detailed descriptions of reclamation and other requirements of bond release are available in Chapters 6 and 7 of the Strip Mining Handbook. In addition, the checklist at Appendix D was designed to guide citizens through the review of a bond release application.

(1) Backfilling and Grading

After the coal seams have been removed, SMCRA requires the operator to put the spoil material back in place and grade the area to its approximate original contour (AOC), with all highwalls, spoil piles and depres sions eliminated. Backfilling and grading (as well as other reclamation activities such as topsoil replacement and revegetation) generally must take place as soon as is practicable after mining. This usually means that where mining occurs in adjacent pits, an operator should remove the coal from the first pit before opening the next pit in order to use the overburden from the second pit to backfill the first pit. All final grading must be done in a manner that minimizes erosion. Once an area has been graded, it must be covered with topsoil that was removed and stored in the initial phase of mining (or the approved, most suitable soil). This soil must be spread in a uniform thickness and adequately protected from wind and water erosion.

(2) Revegetation

After covering a graded area with topsoil, the operator must seed and mulch the graded area during "the first normal period for favorable planting conditions after placement of the plant growth medium." All areas must be seeded with a temporary cover of small grains, grasses, or legumes, until adequate permanent cover is established. For permanent cover, operators must establish a “diverse, effective, and permanent vegetative cover... capable of self-regeneration and plant succession at least the natural vegetation of the area,” Although native species are preferred, SMCRA allows the use of non-native species where "desirable and necessary to achieve the approved post-mining land use." In the West, the post-mining land use will almost invariably be rangeland, so the species used to revegetate must be at least as suitable as the native species for grazing purposes. On prime farmlands, the second phase bond cannot be released until “the soil productivity … has returned to equivalent levels of yield as nonmined land in the surrounding area….” All siltation structures must also be removed before phase two bond release. 

(3) Full Reclamation

At the final bond release stage, the success of revegetation will likely show how successful the reclamation was overall. On eastern coal lands, the final portion of the bond cannot be released until five years after successful revegetation and natural regeneration. During the five year period, the operator may not seed, fertilize, irrigate, or perform other work designed to artificially enhance the vegetation. On the western lands, the period for successful revegetation without artificial help is ten years.

Another aspect of reclamation is groundwater hydrology. SMCRA requires coal operators to assure the protection of the quality and quantity of surface water systems from the adverse effects of mining; to restore the recharge capacity of the mined area to approximate pre-mining conditions; and, in Western states, to preserve the essential hydrologic functions of most alluvial valley floors. Where they cannot assure that the quantity of water will be protected, surface mine operators must provide an alternative water source. Since at least 1992, underground mine operators have also been required to replace damaged drinking, domestic, or residential water supplies, unless the surface owner has signed a deed that waives the operator’s liability for damages caused by subsidence. 

Process Essentials: Environmental Effects 

All mining operations have a disruptive effect on the environment, but the sheer volume of material involved in strip mining makes the impact on the environment especially acute. Strip mining can severely erode the soil or reduce its fertility; pollute waters or drain underground water reserves; scar or alter the landscape; damage roads, homes, and other structures; and destroy wildlife. The dust and particles from mining roads, stockpiles, and lands disturbed by mining are a significant source of air pollution.

A lawsuit filed in August 2011 claimed that the BLM has not adequately assessed the cumulative environmental impacts of coal leasing in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, including mining, transporting, and burning the coal. See "Enviornmental groups sue BLM over coal leases in Wyoming," Casper Star Tribune, 8/23/11. A similar lawsuit in 2013 claimed that the Office of Surface Mining failed to assess the environmental impacts of seven existing coal mining operations in four western states. In this action, the plaintiff Wild Earth Guardians targeted the San Juan Mine in New Mexico and the Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming. See "Three Wyoming coal mines among several challenged in court," Casper Star Tribune, 2/28/13.
Damage to Land Resources 

Soil quality– Strip mining eliminates existing vegetation and alters the soil profile, or the natural soil layers. Mining disturbs and may even destroy the beneficial micro-organisms in the topsoil. Soil also may be damaged if reclamation operations mix the topsoil with subsoils, diluting matter in the surface soil. Long-term damage to soil resources from strip mining may be masked when intensive, short-term land management gives a false im¬pression that reclamation has been successful. Strip mining also may degrade the productive capacity of adjacent land. Spoil placed on adjacent land that has not been properly prepared may erode and thereby cover topsoil or introduce toxic materials to the soil.

Topography – Mining also may alter the natural topography of the area in ways that prevent a return to the previous land use, such as farming. Returning the soil from the mined area to full productivity is especially important in the Midwest, where some of the world's most prime farmland is now being mined for the coal that lies beneath it. 

Landslides– Landslides can occur when an irresponsible operator disposes of the overburden in the cheapest and quickest way possible: by dumping it over the side of the mountain. In steep terrain, spoil dumped this way on the downslope is usually unstable. To help prevent landslides, SMCRA prohibits the disposal of overburden on slopes steeper than 20 degrees. For more information about controlling disposal of overburden and preventing landslides, see Chapter 6 of the Strip Mining Handbook. 

Erosion– Erosion increases dramatically when the protective plant cover is removed and the remaining soil is not stabilized. Unreclaimed mining areas, such as highwalls and spoil piles, are especially susceptible to erosion and landslides. Erosion leads to high sediment loads in runoff; water flows from selected mines carry sediment loads up to 1,000 times greater than flows from unmined areas. High sediment loads and erosion also increase the likelihood and severity of floods, fill lakes and ponds, degrade water supplies, increase water treatment costs, and adversely affect the breeding and feeding of certain fish. Erosion is especially problematic in the Appalachian region because of the combination of heavy rainfall and steep slopes, and in the arid West, where revegetation using native species is often difficult and expensive and long periods of drought are followed by intense periods of precipitation that wash away loose soil. 

valley_fills.jpgValley Fills– Some forms of strip mining, namely contour mining and mountain top removal, often produce more spoil than the pits can accommodate by backfilling. This results from a phenomenon called the swell factor: when overburden is removed it breaks up and loses the compaction that occurred over the thousands of years it laid undisturbed. Even after replacement and mechanical compaction, the volume of the material increases by up to 25%. Operators must dispose of excess spoil in another fill or disposal area, usually at the heads of valleys, called valley fills or head of hollow fills (a fill structure consisting of any material other than coal waste or other organic material that is placed in the upper most area of a valley that is steeper than 20 degrees). This results in the disturbance of land beyond that which is required for mining. Valley fills invariably result in burying streams and wildlife habitat. The headwater streams buried by valley fills are critically important because they contain unique aquatic life and provide organic nutrients to fish and other species downriver. 

SMCRA contains special rules for the location and construction of valley fills (see the following sections of the Strip Mining Handbook: Chapter 5 – Appalachian Mining, Chapter 6 – Controlling the impacts of Excess Soil Disposal, and Appendix C). Operators often disregard the rules for creating fills completely and simply dump the overburden down the nearest valley. The resulting burial of valley streams is one of the greatest abuses in the modern coal-mining era. Burying a stream quite clearly violates OSM’s stream buffer zone rule, which provides that “no land within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream shall be disturbed by surface mining activities.” But see the discussion of Appalachian Mining

Subsidence– Subsidence occurs when underground excavations remove the support for earth above, causing surface collapse, cracking, or depression. Unless the mine workings have been backfilled to support the overburden, any surface area lying above a spot where coal has been mined by underground methods may subside at any time in the future. In addition, because subsidence extends laterally beyond the area actually undermined, adjacent surface land located hundreds or even thousands of feet away from the area directly above a mine is affected as well. The environmental effects of subsidence may be unacceptable in certain circumstances. For example, structures above the mining, including buildings, roads and pipelines can be seriously damaged. Also, subsidence cracks may drain or dewater streams, ponds, wells and groundwater aquifers above the coal seam. These events can cause irreversible adverse impacts on the hydrologic balance. 

Most modern underground mining today uses longwall mining methods that result in planned subsidence, which occurs soon after the coal is extracted. Planned subsidence occurs when operators allow the tunnel from which coal is extracted to collapse in a controlled manner, causing the surface of the land to sink. Under SMCRA, the mining operator has the responsibility to “minimize material damage to the extent technologically and economically feasible to non-commercial buildings and occupied dwellings.” Additionally, if the damage occurred after 1992, the mining operator must repair or compensate for any material damage to your residential property.

Damage to Water Resources 

Irresponsible strip mining can pollute streams and disrupt water supplies. Removing vegetation, blasting the overburden and using heavy equipment create erosion and introduce chemicals, metals and sediment into streams. Water discharged from strip or underground mines must meet pollution standards for four major pollutants: pH, iron, manganese and suspended solids (i.e., sediment). Acid is one of the most damaging pollutants. It kills aquatic life, eats away metal structures, destroys concrete, increases the cost of water treatment for power plants and municipal water supplies, and renders water unfit for recreational use. Acid also may leach-out highly toxic metals or cause them to be released from soils. These toxic substances kill aquatic life and can contaminate water supplies causing serious adverse human health effects. Thousands upon thou-sands of miles of streams have been degraded by acid mine drainage and runoff. Exposed acid material may continue to leach acid for 800 to 3,000 years.

Suspended solids reduce light penetration in water and alter a waterway's temperature. Fish production is hindered; spawning grounds are destroyed. Sediment increases the burden on treatment plants, and streams filled with sediment lose some of their capacity to carry runoff following storms, thus making the stream more prone to flooding. A sediment-laden stream flow can fill up a reservoir and severely reduce its useful life span. Finally, sediment may act as a carrier for other pollutants such as pesticides, heavy metals and bacteria. 

A mining operation that discharges or deposits overburden or spoil into a body of water, including streams and wetlands, must obtain a permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Section 404 regulates any discharge of any dredged or fill material, including overburden from mining activities as well as material deposited in a water body for construction purposes. A permit under SMCRA does not release a mining operation from the obligation to obtain a CWA section 404 permit. Clean Water Act permit requirements are discussed further in Strip Mining Handbook in Chapter 5

Mining activity can also affect the quantity and quality of groundwater supplies. Many coal fields lie below aquifers (underground supplies of water) and sometimes the coal beds themselves serve as aquifers. Surface mining operations will necessarily cut through the coal aquifer and also any aquifer above the coal seam that is being mined. Blasting activity and subsidence from underground mining may break up the impermeable layers of rock that hold water in these aquifers, even where the overburden is not being extracted. These aquifers may be the source of water for many wells. Flow patterns in such aquifers may be changed, thereby adversely affecting water pressure in wells. Portions of aquifers and surface systems may be dewatered, reducing the availability of water for other uses, and perhaps interfering with prior existing water rights. Even where water losses from existing aquifers do not affect other users, disposal of excess water from those aquifers may cause environmental damage. 

It has yet to be demonstrated that a groundwater system destroyed by mining can be permanently restructured. If not conducted properly, coal development — especially in the West — may leave behind barren landscapes vulnerable to continual erosion and disrupted groundwater systems. As a result, the value of these areas for agriculture and other uses may be greatly diminished. For more information about the impacts of surface mining on water quality and quantity and the ways SMCRA controls these impacts, see Chapter 6 of the Strip Mining Handbook
Damage to Wildlife 

Wildlife often suffers severely as a result of strip mining. In the short term, all species are either destroyed or displaced from the area of the mine itself. Mining also may have adverse, long-term impacts on wildlife, including impairment of its habitat or native environment. Many animal species cannot adjust to the changes brought on by the land disturbance involved in coal mining. In cases where an important habitat (such as a primary breeding ground) is destroyed, the species may be eliminated. Unique habitats like cliffs, caves, and old-growth forests may be impossible to restore. Larger mines, such as those in the West, may disrupt migration routes and critical winter range for large game animals. 

As previously noted, strip mining pollutes streams and rivers with heavy metals and sediments. Such pollution can impair the habitat of fish and other aquatic species, thereby reducing population levels. Even where species survive, toxic materials can lower reproduction and growth rates. Strip mining also causes increased turbidity and siltation of streams and ponds, greater variation in stream flow levels and water temperature, and stream dewatering, all of which contribute to the endangerment of aquatic species. 

When fill material is replaced following a strip mining operation, it is heavily compacted to prevent it from eroding or sliding. As a result, easily-planted grasses out-compete tree seedlings, whose growth is slowed by the compacted soil, and complete reforestation is unlikely. More effective reclamation techniques now exist and must be promoted. 

Coal mining causes many other risks as well. For example, mine fires threaten local communities and contribute significantly to climate change. These fires release poisonous gases and cause sudden subsidence, opening holes large enough to swallow vehicles and buildings. Burning deep underground along cracks in the coal seam, the fires are very difficult to extinguish. One fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning underground for over 45 years. Centralia’s residential properties were condemned in 1992, yet a few holdouts remain. 

Another serious problem involves coal slurry. Coal slurry is liquid waste created when coal is rinsed with water, starches, or lime. It is often stored in impoundments at coal mining sites. There have been two major impoundment dam failures in recent decades. Each released thousands of gallons of slurry, resulting in many human deaths, thousands of destroyed homes, and hundreds of miles of polluted rivers, streams and floodplains, killing aquatic life and other wildlife. 

Process Essentials: Region-Specific Environmental Effects/Problems 

The most serious adverse impacts from coal mining have occurred in the Appalachian region, especially the states of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, but coal mining occurs in many parts of the country including the Midwest, the South, and the West. Large mines in such western states as Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming began operating in the 1970’s. The Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana alone produces 40 percent of the coal burned in the United States. Although many unique problems have been encountered at these western mines, many of the problems are the same as in other parts of the country. This section provides an overview of some of the particular problems facing the three major coal regions of the United States: the Appalachian Mountains, the Midwest, and the West. A separate section discusses typical problems at underground mines.

Appalachian Mining 

The primary mining methods used in Appalachia are contour mining and mountain top removal. Much of the mining in Appalachia occurs on steep slopes, which contribute to many of the problems associated with mining. The predominant issues are sediment control, valley and head-of-hollow fills, and acid or alkaline mine drainage.

bayview_sedimentation.jpgSediment Control- Heavy rainfall and steep slopes combine to create a substantial risk of landslides, erosion, and siltation of streams, lakes, and reservoirs. SMCRA requires that operators take measures to stabilize topsoil and spoil materials to prevent erosion and to construct sediment control structures. Sediment control structures often take the form of sedimentation ponds, which are designed to hold stream water in one place long enough for suspended solids such as soil particles to drop out of the water and settle on the bottom of the pond. Sedimentation ponds are intended to prevent, “to the extent possible,” contributions of “suspended solids sediment to streamflow or runoff outside the permit area.” 

Valley and Head of Hollow Fills - As described above, surface mining operations often produce more spoil than the amount that is needed to completely backfill a mined area because breaking up and removing the consolidated overburden above the coal seam causes this material to “swell” by as much as 25 percent. Mountaintop removal operations generate particularly large volumes of excess spoil since the mined area is not backfilled. In Appalachia, excess spoil is usually deposited at the top of V-shaped valleys with steeply sloping sides, referred to as valley or head-of-hollow fills. 

SMCRA requires all excess spoil to be "transported and placed in a controlled manner... in such a way to assure mass stability and to prevent mass movement." The Act and regulations further require that the fill design be certified by "[a] qualified registered professional engineer experienced in the design of earth and rock fills.” The chief concern with fills is stability, and water is the most likely element to destabilize a fill. Accordingly, the operator must manage any sources of water under or near the fill area to avoid erosion. 

OSM’s stream buffer zone rule provides that “no land within 100 feet of a perennial or intermittent stream shall be disturbed by surface mining activities.” Because valley fills invariably result in burying streams, they would seem to be a direct violation of the stream buffer zone rule. The rules, however, allow an exception if the fill will not violate state and federal water quality standards and will not adversely affect the water quantity and quality or other environmental resources of the stream. Under NWP 21, discussed at the end of Chapter 5 of the Strip Mining Handbook, mining companies are generally able to obtain approval for valley fills. While approval would seem to indicate compliance with water quality standards, approval does not necessarily prove compliance; fills may still violate the federal rules if they adversely impact the stream environment. 

Acid Mine Drainage - Federal regulations require the operator to identify all acid and toxic-forming strata from the surface to the stratum immediately below the coal seam in the permit application. If any strata are toxic or acid-forming, the operator’s overburden handling plan must ensure that these strata will not be exposed to air and water where they might contribute to acid runoff. Mine drainage can also be alkaline, which is usually not as destructive as acid mine drainage but can contain heavy metals that degrade habitat and water supplies. Some states allow alkaline addition to offset acid-producing potential, regardless of whether the acid-producing potential might exceed the neutralization potential of the addition at the site. States sometimes even issue permits without the required alkaline addition. 

Midwestern Mining 

Most mining in the Midwest occurs on flat or rolling terrain where area mining methods are used. The principal concern regarding Midwestern coal mining tends to focus on the post-mining agricultural productivity of the land. This section discusses special provisions designed to protect prime farmland, and the problems posed by final-cut lakes. 

Prime Farmland- All strip mining permit applications are required to include the results of an inspection to determine whether any prime farmland (see box) exists within the proposed permit area. If prime farmland may exist, a soil survey must be conducted to identify prime farmland soils within the permit area. If prime farmland soils are identified, the application must contain detailed information about those soils, their pre-mining productivity and the operator's plan to reconstruct those soils after mining to achieve pre-mining crop yields. For more details about identification of prime farmlands, soil surveys, and soil reconstruction plans, see Chapter 5(Midwestern Mining) of the Strip Mining Handbook. For more information about reviewing permit applications on prime farmlands see A Citizen's Guide to Farmland Reclamation, published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. 

Last Cut Lakes - As described above, in the section on the Mechanics of Strip Mining in Chapter 2 of the Strip Mining Handbook, area mine operators prefer to fill the last cut with water rather than trucking the spoil from the box-cut (initial cut) to the last cut. Last cut lakes may pose several problems. First, if the spoil from the box cut remains on the surface next to the box cut, it may be difficult to blend with the surrounding terrain to achieve the approximate original contour, as required by SMCRA. Also, operators may try to place the box-cut spoil on prime farmlands. This should not be allowed because long-term storage of the spoil will damage the productivity of the land. Second, the last cut lake also may be deemed a lesser use than the pre-mining use of the land, or it may conflict with local land-use plans. SMCRA requires that all mined land be restored to pre-mining uses, or to higher and better uses that are consistent with local land-use plans. This problem may be particularly compelling where a long, narrow last cut lake breaks up agricultural land in a way that interferes with farming activities. As a result of a successful lawsuit filed by citizen groups from around the country, last cut lakes are not permit¬ted on prime farmland. Third, last cut lakes also may pose public health or safety problems if, for example, the slopes leading down to the water are too steep. This, too, is prohibited by SMCRA. Finally, the stratum below the coal seam often contains acid-producing materials that may substantially reduce any potential recreational value for the lake.

Western Mining 

Most western mines are considerably larger than eastern mines, and the problems associated with these mines are generally related to the arid climate that prevails throughout much of the West. This section discusses three problems: dewatering, threats to alluvial valley floors, and revegetation.

Mine Dewatering - The large pits excavated for Western mines frequently breach groundwater aquifers. This creates problems not only for the mining operations but for residents who live nearby. The mine pit may drain the ground or surface water resources used by neighboring wells. Further, the water that gathers in the pit may contaminate other water sources when it is pumped out of the pit and discharged into another water body. Under SMCRA, permit applications must include a detailed water monitoring program. 

alluvial-fan-8.jpgAlluvial Valley Floors- The term “alluvial” describes fertile deposits of sediment laid down by the action of wind or water in ancient geological ages. Removal of the alluvium from the valley floor lowers the water table and destroys the protective vegetative cover by draining soil moisture. When it passed SMCRA in 1977, Congress found that alluvial valley floors (AVFs) were "of special importance in the arid and semi-arid coal mining areas" because they form “the backbone of the agricultural and ranching economy in these areas.” Thus, SMCRA protects ranchers by requiring mining operators to “preserve throughout the mining and reclamation process the essential hydrologic functions of alluvial valley floors in the arid and semi-arid areas of the country.” A mining operation that may impact an AVF is subject to stringent requirements. See the section on AVFs in Chapter 5 of the Strip Mining Handbook

Revegetation- The arid conditions that prevail throughout the West may make revegetation difficult to achieve. Short-term success generally can be accomplished without much difficulty using non-native species, fertilizers, and intensive management. Over the long term, however, the operator's ability to restore native vegetation that is capable of self-regeneration – without fertilizers and intensive management – is much harder to demonstrate. Although native species are preferred, SMCRA allows the use of non-native species where "desirable and necessary to achieve the approved post-mining land use." In the West, the post-mining land use will almost invariably be rangeland. Thus, the species used to revegetate must be at least as suitable as the native species for grazing purposes.

Underground Mining 

Underground mining operations must meet most requirements that apply to surface mines. Most of the unique problems that result from underground mining relate to subsidence. Permit applications for underground mines must include a pre-subsidence survey showing whether any structures or renewable resource lands exist within the proposed permit and adjacent area. (Renewable resource lands are defined to include aquifers, recharge areas, agricultural, and silvicultural areas and grazing lands.) If such structures or lands do exist, the applicant must determine whether subsidence might cause "material damage or diminution of reasonably foreseeable uses" to these structures or lands. Regulations also require operators to identify on a map the location and type of drinking, domestic, and residential water supplies that could be contaminated, diminished, or interrupted by subsidence. If the survey shows that subsidence may harm structures, water supplies, or renew¬able resource lands within the permit or adjacent area, the applicant must prepare a detailed subsidence control plan.

Longwall mining is the most common method of underground mining in use today. SMCRA allows longwall mine operators to engage in “planned subsidence,” and the reclamation and restoration requirements for damages caused by planned subsidence are different from those caused by un-planned subsidence.  See the section on “Controlling the Impacts of Subsidence” in Chapter 6 of the Strip Mining Handbook for an in-depth discussion of these requirements.

Process Essentials: Federal Regulation – SMCRA 

The widespread degradation of land and water resources caused by strip mining — and the failure of the states to effectively regulate the industry themselves — resulted in the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). The overriding purpose of SMCRA was to make mine operators conduct their operations in a way that would avoid environmental and public health injury, and to restore the land after mining to its pre-mining condition. 

SMCRA covers all surface coal mining operations in the United States as well as the surface effects of underground coal mining. In addition, SMCRA covers coal preparation and processing facilities, coal waste piles, and those coal-loading facilities that are located at or near a mine site. The only exceptions to the Act's coverage are for: (1) operators who produce less than 250 tons of coal per year; (2) operations that extract coal solely for a landowner's personal (noncommercial) use; (3) operations that extract coal secondarily to the extraction of other minerals (the coal may not exceed 16.6 percent of the total minerals removed); and (4) operations in which the extraction of coal is incidental to government-financed construction. 

SMCRA establishes minimum federal standards for the regulation of coal mining. Using the federal standards as a guide, each state where there is (or may be) surface coal mining may propose a state regulatory program to control mining. SMCRA requires the Secretary of the Interior to approve any state program that meets or exceeds the federal standards. This procedure allows individual states to gain primary control over the regulation of surface mining. For states that fail to submit a program, or that submit an inadequate program, the federal government must establish its own program. All of the major coal producing states, except Tennessee, have received federal approval of their state programs. 

SMCRA requires that each state program contain certain performance standards with which all operators must comply (see below). These performance standards set levels of environmental damage that are deemed unacceptable and in some cases tell the operator how a mining operation must be conducted to protect the environment. SMCRA also requires each state to adopt certain provisions to govern permitting and bonding, inspection and enforcement, and to establish procedures for designating certain lands unsuitable for mining. This section provides an overview of the basic requirements established by SMCRA in each of these areas. 

Permitting and Bonding 

SMCRA requires that all operators obtain a valid permit from the state regulatory authority in order to mine. To obtain a permit, an operator must submit detailed information. For example, the operator must describe the characteristics of the affected land and its ecology; the operator's legal status, financial situation, and past history of complying with the law; and plans for the proposed mining and reclamation operations. Based on the information submitted, an operator must show that he can meet all the requirements of SMCRA and can successfully reclaim the land in compliance with the standards of the Act and its implementing regulations. An operator may also need to obtain additional permits under other laws, such as the Clean Water Act. The permitting process is described in detail in Chapter 5 of the Strip Mining Handbook. In addition, Appendix B contains a comprehensive listing of all permit requirements, together with citations to the applicable federal law and rules and a diagram describing the application process.

The operator also must obtain adequate bonding and insurance. Bonding is intended to ensure that sufficient money will be available to the regulatory authority to pay for the reclamation of the affected land if the permittee fails to live up to the terms of the permit. The operator's insurance must be sufficient to cover any personal injuries and property damage that may result from the operation.

Performance Standards 

SMCRA requires the operator to:

  1. restore the affected land to a condition capable of supporting the uses it could support before mining, or to “higher or better uses.”
  2. restore the approximate original contour (AOC) of the land by backfilling, grading, and compacting;
  3. minimize disturbances to the hydrologic system by avoiding acid mine drainage and preventing additional contributions of sus¬pended solids (sediments from erosion) to nearby streams and other water bodies;
  4. reclaim the land as soon as practicable after the coal has been extracted, and even as the mining operation moves forward; and
  5. establish a permanent vegetative cover in the affected area. If a site's annual rainfall exceeds 26 inches, the operator must ensure that the land remains successfully revegetated for five years after all feeding, fertilizing, and irrigation has ended. If the annual precipitation is less than 26 inches, the operator is responsible for successful revegetation for 10 years.

Some 15 other performance standards apply to all surface mines. For example, standards are established for blasting, for wildlife protection, for road construction and maintenance, and for disposal of excess spoil material. In addition, special performance standards apply to particularly vulnerable areas — alluvial valley floors in the West, prime farmland (most commonly found in the coalfields of the Midwest), and steep slope areas (which dominate Appalachia). A mine must also comply with all permit conditions and provisions of the approved state regulatory program, and SMCRA generally allows state standards to be more stringent than federal standards. Moreover, a mine operator may not conduct operations in a manner that would pose an imminent hazard to public health and safety or to the environment, even if no other violation of the law results. 

SMCRA performance standards are described in detail in Chapter 6 of the Strip Mining Handbook. In addition, Appendix C contains a comprehensive list of SMCRA performance standards. 

Inspection and Enforcement 

A mine must comply with all permit conditions, all provisions of the approved state program, and all other applicable state and federal statutes and regulations. Moreover, a mine operator may never conduct operations that pose an imminent hazard to public health and safety or threaten a significant, imminent hazard to the environment. To help ensure compliance with the law, SMCRA requires at least one complete, on-site inspection per quarter and one partial inspection per month without advance notice to the operator. Partial inspections may include aerial surveys, so long as they are con¬ducted in such manner that violations can be detected. SMCRA also provides for special inspections when citizens complain about hazards or violations at a particular mine. 

When an inspector detects a violation, SMCRA requires the inspector to take enforcement action. Moreover, the inspectors are vested with full legal authority to shut down a mining operation where violations pose an imminent threat to the public or a significant, imminent threat to the environment. If the violation does not cause imminent danger to the health or safety of the public, or significant imminent environmental harm, the inspector must, by law, issue a notice of violation (NOV). If the violation is not abated within the time established by the inspector, the inspector must issue a cessation order (CO) and impose whatever affirmative obligations are necessary to remedy the violation. 

Corporate officers or agents may be assessed civil penalties (or face criminal prosecution) for willfully and knowingly failing to halt violations of SMCRA. Finally, no permit may be issued for any operation that is owned or controlled by any person, corporation, or other entity with outstanding violations of SMCRA. The federal government maintains a computer database of outstanding violations, and citizens can ask the government to check this database when questions arise about individual operators. 

In states with approved programs, the federal OSM must conduct a sufficient number of oversight inspections to ensure that the state is doing its job. OSM does not have authority to take enforcement action during these inspections — but if staff note violations during oversight inspections, or if the office otherwise has reason to believe that violations have occurred — OSM must notify the state. If the state fails to act within 10 days from the date it receives notice of a violation, OSM is obligated to re-inspect and take enforcement action. The inspection and enforcement provisions of SMCRA are discussed in more detail in Chapter 6 of the Strip Mining Handbook

Bond Release Proceedings 

All states require operators to post a bond before issuing a surface coal mine permit. The purpose of the bond is to allow the regulatory authority to step in and use those funds to pay for the cost of reclaiming the land or other resources that may be damaged by mining in the event that the operator abandons his legal responsibilities. At the final stage of a mining operation, the permitting agency releases operators from the bond. Release of the bond releases the operator from any responsibility imposed by SMCRA for damages from the mining operation. Thus, the regulatory agency should not release a bond unless operators have reclaimed the mined land in accordance with the terms of their permits and in the manner required by the applicable federal and state laws. Bond release occurs in three phases: (1) backfilling and grading; (2) revegetation; and (3) full reclamation under the standards of SMCRA. Some operators, however, will not seek bond release until two or even all three phases are completed. Chapter 7 of the Strip Mining Handbook contains more information about bond release proceedings and Appendix D contains a list of SMCRA requirements for each phase of bond release.

Designation of Lands Unsuitable for Mining 

When Congress enacted SMCRA, it decided that coal mining should be banned completely on certain lands. Thus, the law flatly prohibits mining in the following areas: 

  1. On lands where reclamation under the Act's standards is not technologically or economically possible;
  2. On certain categories of federal land, including lands within the National Park System, the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and the National System of Trails;
  3. Within 300 feet of occupied homes, churches, public buildings, and public parks — and within 100 feet of cemeteries or public roads (public roads, however, may be relocated after notice and an opportunity for a public hearing); 
  4. Whenever it will adversely affect a publicly-owned park or place included on the National Register of Historic Sites, unless the agency having jurisdiction over the park or site approves the proposed mining operation.

The only exception to these prohibitions is for valid existing rights (VER); in other words, the prohibitions do not apply to an operator who had a valid right to mine the land at the time it became subject to SMCRA (see Chapter 3 in the Strip Mining Handbook). The VER exception was established to protect private property rights against infringements by the government that would otherwise be considered unconstitutional. SMCRA also gives the states discretionary authority to designate certain other lands as unsuitable for mining. These include lands where surface mining –

  1. is incompatible with existing state or local land-use plans;
  2. affects fragile or historic lands on which such operations could cause significant damage to important historical, cultural, scientific and aesthetic values and natural systems;
  3. affects renewable resource lands (such as forest lands and farmland); or
  4. affects natural hazard lands such as lands prone to earthquakes.

Process Essentials: State Regulation 

As explained above, states have primary control over regulation of surface mining. SMCRA allows states to establish their own regulatory programs to control surface mining within the state’s borders. A state program must have laws and regulations that are at least as strict as SMCRA but it may also have more stringent requirements. A state with an approved regulatory program is responsible for granting permits, inspecting mines for compliance with its laws and regulations, and otherwise enforcing SMCRA and state strip mining standards. The OSM oversees these state programs and will withdraw approval of a state program and implement a federal program in its place if the state “fails to implement, enforce, or maintain its approved State Program” as provided for in SMCRA. 

States can also control surface mining through their authority to issue or deny permits under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. Section 401 requires an applicant for any federal license or permit to obtain certification from the state for any activity that “may result in any discharge into navigable waters.” Thus, if a mine operator applies for any kind of federal permit that will potentially discharge material into rivers or streams, the operator will need the state’s water protection certification. Without state certification, the federal permit cannot be issued. Among the federal permits that may be requested for any mining operation that could adversely impact water quality are permits for pollution discharges, permits for rights of way across federal lands, and permits for air pollution discharges. In order to obtain state certification, the applicant must meet the Clean Water Act’s pollutant discharge limitations as well as any additional state water quality standards. In addition, the state may impose conditions on the mine operator – for example, monitoring the operator for the life of the federally permitted project – to ensure the operator continues to meet state and federal water quality standards. 

Process Essentials: Citizen Rights 

SMCRA grants affected citizens the broadest rights to participate in administrative and judicial proceedings ever granted in a federal environmental statute. Under SMCRA citizens can participate in nearly every aspect of strip mining regulation. Citizens may sue in state or federal court if the federal government, the state government, or any operator fails to comply with the provisions of the Act. Most importantly, citizens need not have an economic interest to bring court actions; aesthetic and recreational interests also are protected. In short, Congress gave citizens the opportunity to protect their rights and to play a vital role in SMCRA's implementation. SMCRA gives citizens the right to participate in:

  • each decision to grant a permit - SMCRA gives citizens the right to review a permit application, file a written objection to a permit application, request an informal conference, a right to go onto the mine site, a formal hearing on the merits of the decision, and judicial review of the hearing officer's decision 
  • bond release proceedings – citizens have the right to file written objections to a proposed bond release, request a hearing regarding the bond release, and inspect the mine during the bond release proceeding 
  • inspection and enforcement - where a mine operator fails to meet its statutory obligations, citizens have the right to call for and participate in inspections of mine property, to use informal or formal agency proceedings to challenge an agency's failure to take proper enforcement action, and to appeal any adverse decision to the courts 
  • proceedings to designate lands unsuitable for mining - citizens can petition to designate an area unsuitable for coal mining and may appeal a designation decision to the appropriate court 
  • promulgation of regulations - citizens can challenge in court any regulation promulgated under SMCRA 
  • recovery of damages - citizens can recover damages caused by violations of the Act

The Strip Mining Handbook has extensive information regarding citizen rights under SMCRA in Chapter 4. In addition, Chapter 5 has specific information for citizens reviewing a permit application, Chapter 6 provides advice for citizens participating in inspection and enforcement, and Chapter 7 describes citizen participation in bond release proceedings.


Demand for Coal 
Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel used for energy production worldwide. At the current rate of consumption, world coal reserves are estimated to last over 150 years. As oil and gas become scarcer and their prices continue to rise, pressure to develop coal resources increases. World coal consumption is growing faster than the consumption of any other kind of energy. The demand for coal in 2030 is expected to be double the demand in 2007. Nonetheless, pressures to reduce coal consumption are growing, due to concerns about environmental and health impacts. (The City of Los Angeles announced in March 2013 that it would stop using electricity produced by coal by 2025 at the latest.)

Currently the United States depends on coal for half of its electricity production. With more proven coal reserves than any other country, the United States will continue coal mining not only for domestic use but for export to meet increasing international demand. The United States currently exports approximately six percent of the coal it produces. 

The continued burning of coal to generate electricity and heat contributes significantly to global warming and climate change. Climate change results from a buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) in the atmosphere that traps heat which normally disperses into space. Burning coal with current technologies results in more GHG emissions per unit of energy produced than any other form of energy. To make matters worse, the mere extraction of coal produces 10 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Methane, which inevitably escapes from the coal beds during the mining process, is a dangerous GHG that traps twenty-one times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

photo_cw_02.jpgCarbon dioxide emissions from burning coal can be reduced in two ways. One is to increase the efficiency of energy conversion in coal combustion; the other is to capture and sequester the GHGs emitted from burning coal. Much work is being done to promote efficiency and carbon sequestration technology, but unless the GHG footprint of coal consumption is considerably reduced, the long-term future of coal remains in doubt. In the short-term, however, coal will continue to serve as the primary source of energy for electric power generation, and the prospects for further coal development remain fairly strong.

Wyoming, being the nation’s largest coal producer, is extremely interested in ways to keep their coal competitive in the energy market as the connection between coal and climate change solidifies. An effort to cut coal carbon dioxide emission by half to mirror that of natural gas leads to carbon sequestration.
See the following for information on emerging controversies about coal development and export:
Mountaintop Removal 
Perhaps the greatest modern threat from coal mining comes from mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian region. This practice is described in more detail in Chapter 2 of the Strip Mining Handbook. Improved technology allows mine operators to remove entire mountaintops to access underlying coal seams by moving mountaintop vegetation, topsoil, and overburden to adjacent valleys where mountain streams often run. Most affected streams are considered headwater streams, which are important because they contain unique aquatic life and provide organic energy to fish and other species downriver. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that over 700 miles of streams have been buried by removed material and 1,200 miles have been directly affected by mountaintop removal mining. In Kentucky, for example, the number of polluted streams rose by twelve percent between 2001 and 2005. Read “The Effects of Mountaintop Mines and Valley Fills on Aquatic Ecosystems of the Central Appalchian Coalfields,” U.S. EPA, 7/13/10, and “A Field-Based Aquatic Life Benchmark for Conductivity in Central Appalachian Streams,” U.S EPA, 7/13/10, for more information about the effects of Central Appalachian coal operations on its surrounding streams. See also a report issued by an independent group of physicians and scientists, "The Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining" (Center for Health, Environment and Justice, April 2013).

Mountaintop removal mining will cause a projected loss of 1.4 million acres of land by 2010. Roughly 800 square miles of mountains had already been destroyed by 2003, and, while there is little reliable data after 2001, current estimates suggest that as many as 470 mountains have now been flattened in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. The Government Accountability Office was asked to perform a study on surface coal mining and reclaimed lands that were disturbed by surface coal mining in the Appalachian region. Read Characteristics of Mining in Mountainous Areas of Kentucky and West Virginia to further understand the environmental effects of mountaintop removal. In addition, the deforested mine sites cause flooding, even after revegetation efforts are complete and the mining process itself causes dust, noise, and fires. Subsidence cracks the foundations of nearby houses and disrupts the operation of nearby wells. The change in topography is startling.

A good deal of controversy has focused on Mingo Logan Coal Company's Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia. Environmental and community groups are worried about the environmental effects that mountain blasting and overburden removal will have in nearby valleys and headwater streams. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act Section 404 (dredge and fill) permit for the operation in 2007, which the EPA vetoed in 2011. The following year a federal judge ruled that this retroactive veto exceeded EPA's authority, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and confirmed EPA's veto authority under Section 404 (Mingo Logan Coal. Co. v. EPA, 4/23/13). This case prompted the West Virginia congressional delegation to introduce H.R. 524 to prevent retroactive vetoes.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency issued “Comprehensive Guidance to Protect Appalachian Communities from Harmful Environmental Impacts of Mountaintop Mining,” U.S. EPA, 04/01/10. This set of actions uses the best available science to make sure coal mining operations in the Appalachian region do not significantly damage watershed in the area. The EPA finalized this Guidance document in July 2011. For more information on the EPA's regulatory stance, see the 7/21/11 commentary by environmental law professor Holly Doremus at Legal Planet.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D.-Ky.) introduced H.R. 526 in the 113th Congress, seeking to impose a moratorium on mountaintop mining pending further study of the health impacts of this practice.

blasting.jpgMost mining operations use blasting to break up the overburden, coal seam, or both. Many mines in the Midwest and West lie far enough away from populated areas so that blasting has little effect on homes and other structures such as concrete ditches or pipelines. But in the East, and in some areas of the Midwest and West, blasting can cause property damage and personal injury. In addition, blasting can adversely affect aquifers by fracturing the impermeable layers of rock that hold water in these aquifers and causing the water to migrate to lower strata. Finally, blasting can fracture the bed confining a stream in much the same way that it fractures the bed below an aquifer. 

All mines must contain a blasting plan that is designed to protect the public from damage. Additionally, before any blasting can occur, the operator must mail a pre-blasting notice, along with a copy of the planned blasting schedule, to the owners of all structures within one-half mile of the outer boundaries of the permit area. The pre-blasting notice advises all such property owners of their right to a pre-blast survey. The purpose of the survey is to determine the condition of private property before blasting so the owner can more easily identify damage caused by blasting. 

Impact of Mining Roads 

Mining roads cause additional land disturbance outside the actual mining area and the dust and particles from roads are a significant source of air pollution. SMCRA contains standards for construction and maintenance of mining roads. All roads must be located on benches, ridges, or other available flat land or stable slopes — and away from the valley bottom wherever possible. No roads may be located in stream beds without the express approval of the regulatory authority. The design and construction of any road used to haul coal or spoil must be certified by a registered professional engineer (PE). Finally, all roads must be properly drained to protect against erosion. 

Collaboration in Action 

Coal mining in the U.S. is regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). SMCRA has led to the development of regulations in the industry as well as the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) who is responsible for approving, monitoring and funding state programs to guarantee their compliance to federal regulations.  OSM has provided grants to its partners in the following states:  Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming and the Crow, Hopi and Navajo Tribes as well as local non-profit organizations to clean up abandoned mine sites. Money for grants is provided by fees that current coal mining operations provide.  These efforts have been successful as more than 200,000 acres of dangerous coal related problems have been reclaimed.

Abandoned Mine Lands provides a case story describing the cleanup efforts of the Monday Creek Watershed located in the Wayne National Forest of Ohio.  Monday Creek’s tributaries have been affected from over one hundred years of coal mining in the area.  Local residents formed the Monday Creek Restoration Project Group which so far has restored 27 miles of the creek.  The project has evolved as its expansion to twenty partners allows for a variety of ideas and resources to join forces in the restoration efforts. 


Public Laws 

Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 (MLA)
As amended by the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987, Public Law 100-203. The text of the MLA, as it appears in the U.S. Code, 30 U.S.C. sections 181-287, can be viewed on the Cornell University web site. 

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), Public Law 95-87
The text of SMCRA, as it appears in the U.S. Code, 30 U.S.C. sections 1200 – 1308, can be viewed on the Cornell web site. 


Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Regulations 
at 30 CFR Parts 700 to end 

Bureau of Land Management Coal Regulations 
at 43 CFR Parts 3000 and 3400

Federal Agencies 

Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
A Bureau within the United States Department of the Interior, the OSM is responsible for creating a program to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining. 

Applicant/Violator System
OSM’s computer database of mining operators who violate SMCRA. Click “Access AVS.” 

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Office of Water
The EPA is responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act, including issuing permits for the discharge of pollutants and dredged or fill materials into rivers and streams. 

U.S. Energy Information Administration
Click on the “Coal” page for data about U.S. coal reserves, coal production, import, and export, coal prices, and related information. 

U.S. Geological Service

Energy Resources Program: Coal Resources
Provides publications and data regarding U.S. coal deposits and quality. 
Water Resources of the U.S.
Provides data about water resources, which may prove useful in obtaining data in order to monitor the impact of coal mines on groundwater supplies.


Links to State Mining Agencies

Appendix J of the Strip Mining Handbook contains a list of state agencies responsible for regulating coal mining within the state, with contact information. 

Appendix H of the Strip Mining Handbook contains a list of local and state organizations that work with SMCRA. 

Other Resources 

Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI)
A coalition of OSM and several Eastern coalfield state agencies that cooperate with the coal industry, environmental groups, citizens’ groups, and scientists to promote the goal of replanting high-value hardwood forests on reclaimed coal mines 

National Mining Association is a national trade organization that represents the interests of the mining industry before Congress, the Administration, federal agencies, the judiciary, and the media. Review their Most Requested Statistics-U.S. Coal

EPA – Groundwater Contaminants 
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains detailed information about groundwater contamination, including information about approximately 90 contaminants for which the EPA has set drinking water standards. These standards can help citizens determine whether local coal mines are contaminating drinking water. 

U.S. Bureau of Mines - Dictionary of Mining, Mineral, and Related Terms

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