Wyoming Coal Mine Reclamation, Safety, and Environmental Considerations

As the nation’s leading coal mining state, Wyoming regulators also lead the country in reclaiming the largest amount of coal mine acreage. The large surface mines in the Powder River Basin are home to coal deposits over 100 feet thick and reclaiming this area to original contour is a major effort. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA) was established for permitting surface coal mining on lands with federal leases. SMRCA was passed with specific criteria for determining if lands were unsuitable for coal mining and establishing parameters for reclamation. The Office of Surface Mine Reclamation & Enforcement http://www.osmre.gov/ has the job to oversee all post-mining reclamation activities at all U.S. coal mines, and in Wyoming this effort is conducted by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The active mine reclamation and inactive abandoned mines programs are operated by the Land Quality http://deq.state.wy.us/lqd/ and Abandoned Mine Land (AML) divisions http://deq.state.wy.us/aml/, respectively. The Land Quality Division, or LQD is responsible for enforcement of the surface mine reclamation activities in Wyoming. LQD oversees mine permitting and licensing for both surface and underground mining activities. LQD also issues reclamation bonds for each mine to ensure safe and satisfactory reclamation activities occur after mining has ceased. Reclamation activities are regulated by SMRCA and the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act. The Abandoned Mine Lands mine protection program provides public safety to abandoned mines that don’t necessarily fall within the bounds of SMRCA.

Photo courtesy of Ruckelshaus Institute.

Mine reclamation is the process of restoring land that has been mined to a natural or economically usable purpose. Although the process of mine reclamation occurs once mining is completed; the preparation and planning of mine reclamation activities occur prior to a mine being permitted or started.

Most of the lands that coal mines operate on are public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)(http://www.blm.gov/wyoming1/), under the U.S. Department of the Interior. This federal agency oversees 17.5 million acres of public lands in Wyoming and 40.7 million acres of federal mineral estates. Under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 coal became a leased commodity. On federal lands, mineral and coal development is conducted through the BLM. The BLM actively holds lease sales and lease-by-application processes, sets standards for mine inspections, production verification, logical mining units, and other important coal mining parameters. The BLM in Wyoming is a national leader in establishing rules and regulations for large surface mining operations to ensure fair and safe coal mining occurs in the state.

Safety is the most important concern with regard to coal mining. Nationally, since 1977 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) http://www.msha.gov/ has governed the health and welfare of the safety of miners. MSHA sets national standards for safety operations at both surface and underground coal mines, and oversees activities as varied as rock dust, mine methane, thermal events in underground mines, and worker safety. Mining often involves extremely difficult and hazardous working conditions and MSHA has the responsibility to ensure that mining is conducted in a safe environment. New technological advances in radio communications, as well as methane detection and liberation in underground mines have recently made underground mining a much safer work place.

Coal is also part of the global debate on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Concerns about limiting greenhouse gas emissions and climate change inevitably point to fossil fuels as the primary source for anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Coal-fired power plants are the largest point sources for CO2emissions worldwide. For the past 35 years state and federal legislation has been passed to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants with regard to sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter. In the future, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) regulations will limit mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. Wyoming coal is naturally very low in mercury, arsenic and sulfur. Additional information is available on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at http://www.epa.gov/ .