Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) is the primary federal law that regulates the environmental effects of coal mining in the United States.
SMCRA created two programs: one for regulating active coal mines and a second for coal mine reclamation of abandoned mine lands. SMCRA also created the Office of Surface Mining, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, to promulgate regulations, to fund state regulatory and reclamation efforts, and to ensure consistency among state regulatory programs.
In 1979 the U.S. National Research Council published a history of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act:
Coal has been mined in the United States since the 1740s, but surface mining did not become widespread until the 1930s. Some trace the origins of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to the environmental movement, and Earth Day 1970. However the first bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress in the 1960s, and in West Virginia as long ago as 1939, which enacted the country's first law on surface coal mining (House Bill No. 390, Chapter 84, passed March 11, 1939). West Virginia's early lead in enacting a surface-mining law was followed by Indiana (1941), Illinois (1943), Pennsylvania (1945), and Ohio (1947). Despite these laws, the great demand for coal during World War II led to coal being mined with little regard for environmental consequences. After the war, states continued to enact and expand regulatory programs, some of which required mining permits or the posting of bonds to ensure that the land could be reclaimed after mining was complete.
However, reports showed strip mining was still creating environmental and health problems. In 1964 a U.S. Appalachian Regional Commission report listed the harmful effects of coal mining, and in 1967 the U.S. Department of the Interior published a report on the accumulated damage caused by digging up four million acres of the nation's land for coal mining and then abandoning it. The report said there were 20,000 miles of unreclaimed highwalls in the Appalachians, between 4,000 and 5,000 acres of land newly disturbed each week, large increases in pollution of streams, and danger of coal sludge spills, such as in 1972 at Buffalo creek, West Virginia, where 118 died when a dam built of coal-mine waste collapsed under heavy rain. In the West, fears about the impact of greatly expanded coal production were aroused by ambitious plans for power plants in the Southwest and the northern Great Plains. By 1975 several western states had adopted some form of legislation dealing with reclamation practices.
Despite these efforts, state laws were largely unsuccessful at stemming the environmental impacts of surface mining. One problem was that the law varied from state to state, enabling mining operations to relocate to states where regulations were less strict. Meanwhile, surface mining became increasingly common: in 1963 just 33 percent of American coal came from surface mines; by 1973 that figure reached 60 percent.
The citizen lobbies that were formed in the East and West during the early 1970s brought their concerns to the U.S. Congress. In 1974 and 1975 Congress sent mining regulation bills to President Gerald Ford, but he vetoed them out of concern that they would harm the coal industry, increase inflation, and restrict the energy supply. As Jimmy Carter campaigned in Appalachia in 1976, he promised to sign those bills. Congress sent him a bill that was even more stringent than those vetoed by Ford, and President Carter signed it into law on August 3, 1977.
The resulting law is primarily an environmental statute, and establishes what Congress understood to be a minimum set of standards for surface coal mining and reclamation, overcoming the unevenness in State laws, but allowing the States the opportunity to implement and enforce these standards, or standards that are more stringent.
SMCRA has two main parts: regulation of active mines and reclamation of abandoned mine systems.
The regulation of active mines under SMCRA has thirteen major components:
- Standards of Performance. SMCRA and its implementing regulations set environmental standards that mines must follow while operating, and achieve when reclaiming mined land.
- Permitting. SMCRA requires that companies obtain permits before conducting surface mining. Permit applications must describe what the premining environmental conditions and land use are, what the proposed mining and reclamation will be, how the mine will meet the SMCRA performance standards, and how the land will be used after reclamation is complete. This information is intended to help the government determine whether to allow the mine and set requirements in the permit that will protect the environment.
- Bonding. SMCRA requires that mining companies post a bond sufficient to cover the cost of reclaiming the site. This is meant to ensure that the mining site will be reclaimed even if the company goes out of business or fails to clean up the land for some other reason. The bond is not released until the mining site has been fully reclaimed and the government has (after five years in the East and ten years in the West) found the that the reclamation was successful.
- Inspection and Enforcement. SMCRA gives government regulators the authority to inspect mining operations, and to punish companies that violate SMCRA or an equivalent state statute. Inspectors can issue "notices of violation," which require operators to correct problems within a certain amount of time; levy fines; or order that mining cease.
- Land Restrictions. SMCRA prohibits surface mining altogether on certain lands, such as in National Parks and wilderness areas. It also allows citizens to challenge proposed surface mining operations on the ground that they will cause too much environmental harm.
SMCRA created an Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to pay for the cleanup and coal mine reclamation of mine lands abandoned before the passage of the statute in 1977. The law was amended in 1990 to allow funds to be spent on the reclamation of mines abandoned after 1977. The fund is financed by a tax of 35 cents per ton for surface mined coal, 15 cents per ton for coal mined underground, and 10 cents per ton for lignite. 80% of AML fees are distributed to states with an approved reclamation program to fund reclamation activities. The remaining 20% are used by OSM to respond to emergencies such as landslides, land subsidence, and fires, and to carry out high priority cleanups in states without approved programs. States with approved programs can also use AML funds to set up programs to insure homeowners against land subsidence caused by underground mining.
Like most environmental statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s, SMCRA uses a cooperative federalism approach under which states are expected to take the lead in regulation while the federal government oversees their efforts. Under SMCRA, the federal government can approve a program, which gives the state the authority to regulate mining operations, if the state demonstrates that it has a law that is at least as strict as SMCRA, and that they have a regulatory agency with the wherewithal to operate the program. Currently, most coal-mining states have approved programs. Those states issue their own permits, inspect their mines, and take enforcement action themselves when necessary. In the two states without approved programs (Tennessee and Washington) and on Indian Reservations, the Office of Surface Mining performs those functions. The federal government is required to regulate surface coal mining on federal lands (which include 60 percent of the coal reserves in the West), but can enter into cooperative agreements with states with approved programs.
- "Surface Mining Law" Office of Surface Mining and reclamation Website, accessed November 2009
- National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Surface Mining and Reclamation, Surface mining of non-coal minerals, 1979
- "Abandoned Mine Land Fund Reauthorization: Selected Issues" Policy Archive, March 2005
Related SourceWatch articles
- Harris Epstein, Johanna Wald, John Smillie, "Undermined Promise: Reclamation and Enforcement of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act 1977-2007," Natural Resources Defense Council and Western Organization of Resource Councils, 2007