But Long-Term Effects Are Uncertain : Strip Miners Restore a Scarred Land

Associated Press

Once again, grass grows and water flows on land ripped apart, then put back together, by miners eager for Western coal.

Even buffalo roam atop huge pits gouged by machines bigger than houses, then filled with spoils, the debris left after the black treasure is gone.

Strip mining on a grand scale is a young industry in the West, a region long associated with the hard-rock underground mining of gold and silver. Coal did not boom in the West until the late 1960s, when demand for an alternative to oil and more efficient technology made it economically feasible to mine it.


By then America’s environmental movement was flexing its muscles. Local watchdog groups and national organizations rallied to ensure that coal companies did not “rape and run” from the fragile semiarid landscape west of the 100th meridian.

Scant rainfall and thin topsoil throughout the West, a multimillion-acre patch that looks sturdy but is not, leave the scenery ripe for erosion.

A decade after Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, coal companies have whole departments dedicated to fixing their messes.

“Their performance is good,” said Allen Klein, deputy assistant director of Western field operations, based in Denver, for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

Indeed, when the coal companies’ crews have finished hand-planting silver sagebrush, irrigating ponderosa pine seedlings, pruning purple prairie clover and sowing a dozen kinds of wheat grasses, the result pleases the eye.

Cattle graze in reclaimed pastures watered by meandering streams. Antelope, elk, deer and small field creatures return to old haunts.

But the long-term verdict on strip mine reclamation in the West is still not in, environmentalists and government monitors say.

“Strip mining is so new in the West, nobody knows what’s going to happen,” said Chuck Christiansen, a staff member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a nonprofit public interest group based in Billings, Mont.

“In Montana, I believe the mining companies are truly doing as much as they really know how to, but I think they’re optimistic sometimes. It took millions of years to establish the layers of the land, and you can’t disturb them, then put them back and say that in 10 years it will all be OK.”

In a report to Congress last year, the Office of Technical Assessment said that, since the surface mining act was enacted in 1977, “the prognosis for the long-term success of reclamation in the West has brightened considerably.”

However, the investigators said, “the geology of some Western coal regions is so variable and-or complex, post-mining water quality or revegetation is very difficult to predict. The slow recharge rate of some Western aquifers makes it difficult to judge” plans to restore water distribution until years after the fact.

The report focused on five Western leasing regions where significant federal coal reserves are being surface mined: Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

Federal law permits states to enforce the mining act. The Office of Surface Mining oversees the states’ enforcement.

In March, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that states may impose their own environmental regulations on private companies mining federal lands. States’ rights advocates and environmentalists hailed the decision as a milestone and predicted that it would have broad implications throughout the West.

In Montana, for example, some of the West’s strictest mining and reclamation laws have forced companies to invent new techniques to repair the damage they do.

Bill Schwarzkoph, reclamation superintendent for Western Energy Co.’s huge mining operation at Colstrip, said his company had spent $1.5 million on reclamation research. He claims victory in his fight to renew the land.

“We’re like farmers plowing, only we just plow a little deeper,” Schwarzkoph said. “I believe reclamation is a success.”

Since Western Energy began mining at Colstrip in 1968, he said, 3,000 acres have been reclaimed at the Rosebud Mine, which produced 12 million tons of coal last year.

“We have learned from trial and error. Reclamation is no longer a big mystery; it is working,” he said. “There are certain things you have to do: You regrade spoils, salvage topsoil, use native seed mixes. In 10 years you are going to have good, productive land again.”

Schwarzkoph, who has a master’s degree in wildlife management and is a certified mine foreman, says he enjoys his job at the Colstrip operation, the largest strip mine in Montana.

“From a reclamation standpoint, it is a fun place to work because you get a lot of disturbed ground,” he said. “We disturb 350 acres a year, so we plant 350 acres a year. Our total cost to reclaim an acre is $11,560.”

An active strip mine is an open wound in the earth. A pit is cut, layer by layer, in descending circles down to the coal seam. In Montana, the coal is usually 100 to 150 feet below the surface.

Noise and blowing dust are constant. Explosives loosen rock and dirt. Dragline buckets big enough to swallow three pickup trucks scrape at sediment laid down by the ages. Enormous vehicles with engines that drown out all natural sounds shuttle back and forth in the hole, taking coal to a crusher. Conveyor belts haul the chunks to storage elevators where 100-car trains are loaded, 110 tons per car. Most of Montana’s coal is shipped to Midwestern utilities.

When a pit is emptied and the equipment moves to open a new gash, reclamation begins.

First, the spoils pile is put back into the pit. When the hole is filled, carefully hoarded topsoil is spread on the surface. In the West, topsoil is only one to two feet thick.

Crews then grade the land to resemble its original shape and plant appropriate seeds, shrubs and trees. Ideally, except for initial watering and fertilizing, the experts wait for nature to take over. But often erosion, drought or insect invasions call for damage control.

Schwarzkoph chafes at the amount of inspections and regulation involved in reclamation.

“Fifteen years ago there was room to be skeptical: Is it going to be reclaimed right? But today I think the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “Yet we are constantly being inspected, and if you haven’t dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s it’s a violation.”

Sandra Olsen, bureau chief of the coal and uranium division of the Department of State Lands, believes that Montana’s stringent laws prevent neglect and abuses such as abandoned pits and contaminated spoils piles.

“This state became committed to reclamation about 1971, and we think we’ve been on top of it since the beginning of large-scale strip mining in Montana,” Olsen said. “Back East they have to fight a lot of history, but out here we don’t have to fight that battle.

“Our law requires mines to leave the water and land as they had been, in the same general topography, with similar plants and wildlife. If companies don’t comply with the law, the bureau can assess civil penalties, and even completely shut down a mine.

‘Watch Grass Grow’

“Simplistically, our job is to watch grass grow,” said Olsen, based in Helena, “but it’s exciting because everybody grows it a little bit different.”

Wally McRae is a local rancher whose family has lived along Rosebud Creek for three generations. In the 1960s and 1970s he helped to lead the fight against huge strip mines and power plants in southeastern Montana.

“The ability to revegetate my land would be at the bottom of my priority of concerns about the impact of coal on Montana. I believe the social, economic and political impacts come before the environmental,” said McRae, 51. “But from a subsurface point of view, I believe reclamation is not working. If they (the mines) disrupt the aquifer, who knows how long it will take to manifest itself?”

Ranchers worry that water that used to flow underground, atop the coal seam, will be tainted by heavy metals, salts and toxic materials when it passes through reclaimed spoils. Worse yet, they ask, what if the water is blocked and stops flowing altogether to humans and animals living where rainfall is less than 15 inches a year?

Ranchers Rally

McRae was one of the founders of the Northern Plains Resource Council. It sprang from ranching families rallying to fight the giant mining conglomerates.

“I can’t think of a time when the (Northern Plains Resource Council) ever tried to stop coal development,” McRae said. “Coal is going to be mined in Montana. If that is a given, we must make sure it is mined in a responsible manner.”

Ranchers and farmers, aided by resource council staff and consultants, were largely responsible for drafting Montana’s stringent mining and reclamation laws. Some of the toughest provisions of the federal law were copied from Montana’s 1973 act.

Montana coal mining accounts for about 4% of national production. Last year the state’s nine active strip mines produced 33.7 million tons, employed 1,500 people and pumped $64 million into the state’s economy. Montana’s 30% tax on coal production, the highest in the nation, accounted for $84 million of the $472 million in state taxes raised in fiscal 1985-86.

With low oil and gas prices worldwide, the coal industry has slumped dramatically and pressure has increased on politicians to relax the tough, expensive reclamation laws.

New Coal Lobby

Two of America’s largest coal groups, the National Coal Assn. and the Mining and Reclamation Council of America, are forming a new lobby. Together, they represent more than 300 coal producers and account for 70% of the nation’s annual production.

Olsen estimates that, except for the Rosebud operation at Colstrip, Montana strip mines are at 50% capacity or less. However, her department still employs 13 inspectors, ranging from surface and groundwater hydrologists and wildlife biologists to air quality engineers. An inspector visits the big mines twice a month and checks smaller operators monthly.

A mining permit is issued for only five years and is scrutinized halfway through its eligibility.

The U.S. government requires that, before any earth is turned, a company must detail how it intends to mine the coal and post a bond to pay for any necessary cleanup. Bonds cannot be released for 10 years, after post-mining conditions have stabilized.

“Bonds range from $200 to $24,000 an acre,” Olsen said. “The bond amount is based on how long, wide and deep the strip mine is. There must be a sufficient amount of bond money held by the state for it to perform reclamation work if that becomes necessary.”

“Montana is excellent in running its regulatory program,” said Klein at the Office of Surface Mining in Denver. “Montana’s enforcement of the act has been sound, has matured and continues to grow.”