New Report Highlights Coal Reclamation Failures across the West

Photo: Coal mining scars Wyoming landscape. Photo credit: Ecoflight

National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Western Organization of Resource Councils released Undermined Promise II today, a report on the failure of coal reclamation in the West and its pending public liability. The report finds that coal companies are not reclaiming mines, and, with the coal industry on shaky financial ground, the public faces increasing liability for massive reclamation costs.

With monthly coal production trending downward since its peak in August 2008, there have been a string of bankruptcies, mine closures, and employee layoffs. And, in a last ditch effort to increase revenue, mining companies are pushing projects that would damage U.S. public lands, wildlife, and American's natural resource heritage to export coal to Asia in the face of declining domestic demand.

Whether for domestic or foreign consumption, coal mining wreaks havoc on the landscape, native soil and vegetation, the fragile hydrology of arid Western ecosystems, and the wildlife dependent on these things to survive. Surely, these coal companies are being held accountable to restore these lands to their original state, right?


The worst part is, the law exists to hold companies accountable--it's just not being enforced. In the 1960s and 1970s, lawmakers were concerned about the legacy of environmental harm that coal mining had already left in the East and the extensive damage that could result from the Western expansion of the coal industry. This concern led to the 1977 passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Through SMCRA, Congress sought, among other things, to ensure that reclamation happens where mining takes place; that mining operations are conducted in a manner that protects the environment; and that reclamation occurs in a timely fashion.

Though well-intentioned, today, nearly four decades since SMCRA was enacted, the on-the-ground implementation of this important law is almost nonexistent. And the concern over damaged lands in the West that helped pass SMCRA in the first place has unfortunately become a reality--and yet another scar on America's landscape thanks to the dirty energy industry.

In the past few weeks, Peabody announced another 250 layoffs, and Arch Coal received a delisting notice from the New York Stock Exchange because it hasn't been able to keep its average closing price at or above $1 per share for 30 consecutive trading days (Arch stock is currently valued at about 50 cents per share). With the coal industry in a dire financial situation today, we need SMCRA. This landmark law was intended to safeguard the environment, wildlife, our water, and the health and safety of local communities from the impacts of coal mining. If enforced properly, it would also protect us, the taxpayers, from having to foot the bill, which is currently somewhere around 3 billion dollars, when bankrupt coal companies can't afford to restore the land they previously damaged.

Almost eight years ago, with the release of Undermined Promise, we found that the intent of SMCRA was not being fulfilled. Unfortunately, little has changed since then. Today, with the release of our second report, Undermined Promise II, we find that mining companies and regulatory agencies are continuing to fail the American people.

If things don't improve, we have a lot to lose. The majority of these projects are on the public lands where we hike, camp, bike, hunt, and fish. Some of the species threatened by coal mining are already on the brink of extinction. Coal companies have lined their own pockets at the expense of our treasured landscapes - and, if not held accountable under the law, will simply pass their bill to us, the American taxpayers.

It's time to demand that SMCRA is enforced and that our government stop leasing more of our lands to companies that fail to perform the reclamation required by the law.

Undermined Promise II analyzes the status of coal reclamation in Western states. It focuses on wildlife, hydrology, and bond release. Here are some key findings of the report:

  • Reclamation isn't occurring at the pace it was meant to. In fact, Undermined Promise II found that after decades of mining across 450 square miles of land in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, only 46 square miles have fully met reclamation requirements. And it's only getting worse. Despite the fact that existing mined lands aren't being restored, the amount of mined land continues to increase!
  • Lack of reclamation poses a threat to western water. Water is a precious, and sometimes scarce, natural resource in the arid West. While protecting water is a goal of SMCRA, as it stands today, companies aren't gathering enough data to really assess the pre-mining water situation. And if they don't know what's there, they certainly can't protect it during the mining process or restore it after the mine is closed.
  • Wildlife habitat isn't being restored. Although protecting and restoring wildlife habitat is a principle goal of SMCRA, it just isn't happening. Diverse and native vegetation can be hard to restore once disturbed by mining. Take the fragile sage steppe environment of the threatened greater sage grouse (and hundreds of other wildlife species), for example. Once destroyed, sagebrush steppe can take several decades to reestablish itself.
  • Acres mined are increasing, while inspection staff is decreasing. Compliance with SMCRA's mining and reclamation standards require mandated state and federal inspections, yet between 2006 and 2013, as the number of western acres disturbed by mining expanded by 15%, the number of regulatory inspection staff decreased by nearly 14%.
  • Some states are allowing coal companies to bond without collateral. This is called "self-bonding," and it essentially allows companies to avoid insuring their clean-up costs in case they go bankrupt. No one really cared about self-bonding when the going was good for the coal industry, but in the face of plummeting coal prices and dwindling demand, this could be a serious problem. Especially because if coal companies can't afford to clean up after themselves, taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars.

To learn more and read about our recommendations, check out the full report and summary here.