Wyoming Coal Mine Reclamation, Safety, and Environmental Considerations

As the nation’s leading coal production state, Wyoming regulators also lead the country in reclaiming and restoring the largest acreage of coal mine related disturbance. The large surface mines in the Powder River Basin are home to coal deposits of more than 100 feet thick. Reclaiming these large areas to recreate their original topography and drainage patterns requires major efforts with years of modeling, planning, and earthmoving prior to achieving the approved final post-mine surface.

In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA) established requirements for the permitting of surface and underground coal mining on lands in Wyoming, lands with federal leases or overlying federal coal. SMRCA was passed with specific criteria for determining whether lands were unsuitable for coal mining, and establishing parameters for the reclamation of lands disturbed by coal mines. The Office of Surface Mine Reclamation & Enforcement (www.osmre.gov) oversees all mining and reclamation activities at all U.S. coal mines, and following OSMRE’s approval of the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act (WEQA) and its regulations, this effort has been delegated to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The active mine reclamation program is operated by the Land Quality Division (LQD) (deq.state.wy.us/lqd) and the inactive abandoned mine program is operated by the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Division (deq.state.wy.us/aml). The LQD is responsible for the enforcement of the regulatory requirements for mining and reclamation activities on all coal mines in Wyoming. LQD oversees mine permitting and licensing for both surface and underground mining activities, for both coal and non-coal mining operations. As required by SMCRA, as well as the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act, and Wyoming regulations, LQD holds reclamation bonds for each mine to ensure satisfactory reclamation activities are completed after mining has ceased. The Abandoned Mine Lands protection program provides safeguards for public safety on abandoned mine sites that do not 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 approved economically usable purpose. Although the process of mine reclamation occurs once mining has been completed; the preparation and planning of mine reclamation activities occur prior to a mine being permitted or mining disturbance starts.

Most of the lands that coal mines operate on are public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (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 officially became a leased commodity. On federal lands, mineral and coal development is conducted through approval by the BLM. The BLM actively holds lease sales and lease-by-application processes, sets standards for their mine inspections, and provides coal or mineral production verification, logical mining units as well as other important mining parameters. The BLM in Wyoming is a national leader in establishing rules and regulations for large surface mining operations to ensure fair leasing and along with MSHA, safe coal mining operations 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) (www.msha.gov) has governed the health and welfare of the safety of miners. MSHA sets national standards through regulation to ensure safe operations at both surface and underground coal mines, and oversees activities such as approving specialized mining equipment, determining the quality of rock dust, conducting mine methane monitoring, detection of 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 using safe equipment. New technological advances in radio communications, as well as methane detection in underground mines or liberation methods 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. According to the EPA, 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 assumed to be the largest point sources for CO2 emissions worldwide. For more than 40 years state and federal legislation (Clean Air Act 1970) has been passed to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants with regard to sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter. In the future, new Mercury and Air Toxics regulations will limit mercury and other emissions from power plants. Wyoming coal is naturally very low in mercury, arsenic, and sulfur and may still be mined despite these new regulations. Wyoming coal will still remain an important constituent for electricity generation in the future. Additional information is available on the U.S. EPA website at  (www.epa.gov).

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