New Government Report on Mountaintop Removal Cites Reclamation Problems

A new report issued yesterday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), focusing on mountaintop removal coal minning in Appalachia (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia), identifies several problems associated with this most extreme method of strip mining.  According to the GAO's 68-page report:

  • Reforestation efforts at some reclaimed surface coal mine sites need improvement;
  • Surface coal mine sites have contaminated streams and harmed aquatic organisms;
  • Valley fills may affect water flow; and
  • Mine operators have not always returned mine sites to their approximate original contour when required to do so under federal law (SMCRA).

In addition, GAO's investigation focused on “financial assurances” required of coal companies to ensure that mine sites are properly reclaimed.  Clearly, proper post-mining reclamation and restoration is not happening in Appalachia and part of the reason is that coalfield states all have different requirements and often do not adequately enforce their own standards.  For example, the GAO report found that West Virginia failed to meet requirements for oversight of bond forfeiture sites -- completing only about half of the required inspections.  The GAO report also notes that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for evaluating and issuing mining permits, requires no financial assurances that mine operators will complete the mitigation projects they propose in order to obtain Clean Water Act permits. 

(I've blogged the coal industry's record of reclamation failure before.)


The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee commissioned the GAO report.  Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair of that committee, reacted strongly to the findings, stating:

“Mountaintop removal mining has lasting and far-reaching effects on surrounding lands and streams.  This GAO review documents the extent of these effects and the mechanisms now in place to evaluate their impacts over time.  The results reinforce my belief that we need to take a close look at the quality of long-term monitoring and the financial assurances we require from the industry to ensure that any problems are promptly remediated.  I plan to ask Secretary Salazar for his views on what improvements may be needed in these areas when he testifies before the Committee next month on the Interior Department budget.”

Although the GAO didn't offer policy recommendations in its report, it did conclude that several federal laws may be available under “limited circumstances to address long-term environmental problems at former mine sites” including the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  But the report noted that EPA and other agencies with authority to implement these laws “have rarely or never needed to use these authorities.”