Massive, Man-Made Gashes in Earth's Surface Being Healed--by Law : Environment: Techniques for reclamation of strip-mined land appear to be coming of age. Vast tracts are coming alive again with plants and animals.


Out here on the Great Plains just beyond the city limits, pronghorn antelope give birth in tall sweet grass and red-tailed hawks dive on fat rabbits.

But what is truly remarkable about this pastoral pageant is that the hawk's nest and the rabbit's burrow and the rich grass all flourish on vast tracts once seemingly brought to ruin by strip-mining of some of the most massive coal beds on the planet.

Coal engineers have long known how to tear apart the face of the Earth to get at shallow deposits. Now, 15 years after passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), techniques of putting it back together appear to be coming of age.

It is equally apparent, however, that compliance with the reclamation law has a way to go to catch up with the techniques.

Of about 24,000 surface coal operations subject to SMCRA, at least 6,000 of them have failed to reclaim the land and 11,461 violations remain uncorrected. That's by government count. The National Wildlife Federation puts the numbers at closer to 8,000 and 17,000.

Companies in compliance, though, seem to take as much pride in developing and refining the relatively new technology of reclaiming the land as in their high-tech efficiency at mining the coal.

"Our cattle do better on the reclaimed acreage than on the native range," said Mickey Steward, whose enthusiasm borders on passion.

Steward is in charge of re-vegetation at two Amax Coal Co. mines nearby. Together they removed more than 30 million tons of coal last year from seams as thick as 110 feet. In 10 years they have reclaimed 8,000 acres and turned over about 1,000 of them to an Amax subsidiary, Meadowlark Farms.

If farming and ranching seem odd sidelines for a coal company, there is an explanation.

The reclamation law requires coal companies to prove they have restored the land. Here in the Powder River Basin--the plain between the Black Hills to the east, where the Sioux lost their home, and the Bighorn Mountains to the west, where Custer paid the price--prior use means ranching and some haying in a realm of wildlife.

Just south of here, near the coal-spawned town of Wright, is the largest coal mine on the continent. Its name is Black Thunder, a 31-million-ton producer operated by the Thunder Basin Coal Co. on an 8,000-acre lease. That's 12.5 square miles, and likely to be expanded.

"Right now we're grazing 30 yearlings at a ratio of about three acres per animal," says Bob Moore, Black Thunder's re-vegetation chief.

"Cattle need about six acres a head on the native range. So our reclamation is twice as productive. We plant all the native grasses that grew here before, but not the invader weeds. It becomes a richer pasture.

(Black Thunder, incidentally, even has a registered cattle brand. It is the Arco Spark, the diamond-shaped logo of its owner, Atlantic Richfield Co.)

Reclamation on the plains means getting that new vegetation to grow on a gently rolling landscape upon which nature bestows only 15 inches of rain a year. Also, keeping the stream beds--or, in most cases, the meandering low places where streams flow only intermittently--at precisely the same gradient as before a thick slab of the Earth's crust has been removed from below.

Neat trick. And it's being done not only here but across the continent in Appalachia where rain is three times as plentiful, landscape precipitous and topsoil thin to nonexistent.

"Take a look," says Larry Emerson. The sweep of his arm, as if opening a curtain, takes in a vista of spring-green slopes alive with bird song. Farther off, two ducks knit chevrons on the surface of a pond.

Emerson, an agronomist by training, supervises reclamation at Ashland Coal Co.'s Hobet Mine near Madison, W. Va. He is also a weekend hiker and camper of such devotion that he feels a personal stake in the outcome.

If Emerson were to drop a stick into Bragg Fork of the Little Coal River in the hollow below, and if, across the nation in Wyoming, Mickey Steward were to drop a stick into Caballo Creek, a tiny tributary of the Little Powder River, and if Bob Moore were to do the same 50 miles south at the Little Thunder Creek arm of the Cheyenne River, all three sticks would wind up in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Such is the intricate system that sculpts the face of the entire land; creation still in progress. A surface mine unreclaimed leaves a hurt on the Earth miles beyond its own ugly scar.

The reclamation law's journey to passage was as long and twisting as that of a stick in a stream. It took seven years. It entailed volumes of testimony, hours of congressional debate. It met two White House vetoes before President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1977 and it took effect May 3, 1978.

By that time decades of uncontrolled mining had left 20,000 miles of unreclaimed strip-mine ruins in Appalachia alone. Nearly 10,000 miles of stinking, acid-poisoned streams ran between heaps of lifeless mine spoils.

The law allows the states to administer their own reclamation statutes if they meet its standards. But over the years, enforcement has been lax in many states. At one point, Kentucky was found to be citing only one in 14 observed violations, Pennsylvania conducting fewer than half the required inspections. Last year, West Virginia raised its per-ton coal assessment by 2 cents only after the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) threatened to take over enforcement.

But OSM seems to have enforcement problems itself.

Its latest report shows that as of last February it had assessed $183 million over the years in fines against companies that, after a final warning about violations, flouted orders to shut down their mines. Of that amount it had collected only $5 million. (Add in penalties assessed but uncollected by the states and the total in unpaid fines goes well over $300 million.)

And should a cessation order fail, the law provides for the same fines against the individual corporate executives to blame. OSM has invoked this last-straw sanction only 41 times. And has collected not one dollar.

Most companies abide by the law and many even go beyond its minimal requirements and vie with one another in creative restoration of the land.

Indeed, a new fraternity of specialists has sprouted in America from the reclaimed soil of strip-mines. They go to conventions and swap secrets. They get together informally and chat about grasses and ephemeral drainages, topics more apt to be overheard at a Nature Conservancy tea than beside a dragline tearing up the landscape at 95 cubic yards a bite.

"Reclamation has become much more sophisticated just in recent years," says Steward at Amax.

"The sections we did 10 years ago are perfectly acceptable and we're proud of them. But compared with what we're doing now they seem to me almost primitive, like a kid working in modeling clay."

She pointed to a rocky outcropping on a grassy slope. "You'd swear that had always been there, but we built it. It makes great wildlife cover." A pair of ferruginous hawks nested in a similar one at Black Thunder and fledged two chicks.

She pointed out a meandering stream bed, waiting for rain, and the dry outline of a pond edged in cattails and reeds. "We reconstructed an alluvial aquifer under that flood plain. You can't see it, but it's there."

Then there's sagebrush.

In the Old West, none but a fool or a poet would plant sagebrush on purpose. Cattlemen routinely burned it off as a nuisance. Now the code of the New West, the reclamation law, requires that whatever was there before be put back, including sagebrush.

Where does a diligent reclaimer find commercial quantities of sagebrush seed?

It's so new a commodity that the state of the art of harvesting it has yet to progress beyond these tools: a tarpaulin, a tennis racket and a vacuum cleaner. A good sagebrush whacker can collect about 50 pounds a day of what looks like gray pocket lint, enough to yield five pounds of usable seed. It goes for $35 a pound.

"Hey," says Steward, "whatever it takes."

The law has created a growing demand for reclamation specialists. Steward, for example, finished graduate school the year the law was passed. She saw an opportunity, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the ecology of this very county and had no trouble finding work.

Bob Moore's background is in range management. In nine years at Black Thunder he has kept meticulous charts of 21 species of grasses and shrubs, experimenting on reclaimed land to find the precise mix of warm- and cold-season varieties to match the native growth.

"We have it down pretty good now," he says. "We use 12 different grasses and seven shrubs, including two kinds of sage. If we plant one shrub per square yard we find that over time it will reseed itself and become three per yard, the balance we want."

The balance is not arbitrary. It was agreed to after hot debate over conflicting interests in graze for cattle and browse for antelope and cover for sage grouse.

But the law allows for no argument about restoring the water flow.

Before mining, engineers must construct a model of the exact topography of the area to be mined, the gradient of every stream, foot by foot.

After mining, reclamation begins by replacing the overburden, the material above the coal that ranges from 15 to 250 feet thick. The topsoil, which had been removed and set aside as a first step before mining, will be spread later.

"You first restore the drainages," Steward explains. "You use your imagination, and experience, to build up slopes between them. The surrounding landscape will be lower because the coal is gone, but the drainage must be exactly the same. If the gradient is too flat the stream will silt up, too steep will cause erosion. We can do that."

Reclamation follows along right behind the mining shovels so the least amount of acreage is torn up at any one time.

The terrain in Appalachia requires different techniques. There, streams begin as rainfall on the mountains, drains to a myriad of hollows, then into larger creeks and on to a river.

One strip-mining method is to remove the top of the mountain down to the coal and put the overburden in the mouth of the hollow. Now the stream forms farther down the hollow than before, and settling ponds filter out the sediment as the shortened stream drains to the creek.

Then specialists like Emerson set about re-vegetating the lopped-off top of the mountain and the built-up mouth of the hollow.

"In this country, level land is at a premium," Emerson says. "Most people welcome a little more of it." Just so. West Virginia's newest prison is on a 120-acre reclaimed mine, a school is on another. Other sites have become popular with picnickers, campers, bird-watchers. A reclaimed mine outside Charleston is now a golf course.

It actually takes about 15 years, the specialists say, to be sure the reclaimed surface of the land has healed finally, and that it will endure through dry spells and floods. Bob Moore uses no fertilizers, no imported water, not even to help his new grasses and shrubs get started. No friendly gardener will be around when he's gone; nature must do it on its own.

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