Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Reformism: The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977

"Pollution is a serious one. Water pollution, air pollution, and then solid hazardous waste pollution. And then beyond that, we also have the resources issue. Not just water resources but other natural resources, the mining resources being consumed, and the destruction of our ecosystem." - Ma Jun

"My great-grandfather was a coal miner, who worked in Pennsylvania mines when carts were pulled by mules and mines were lit by candles. Mining was very dangerous work then." - Tim Murphy

"It seems ridiculous that the same questions keep coming up in political debates over and over again. Should we continue to use fossil fuels? Should we continue damaging the environment mining for these raw materials? When their is enough technology to answer these questions with a resounding no, why are these questions still being asked? It boggles the mind that the entire planet is not being run on wind, solar, and geothermal power, as we look up to clear, clean, pristine blue skies, and swim in and drink pure, clear, spring quality water." - Kent Allen Halliburton

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 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 reclaiming abandoned mine lands. SMCRA also created the Office of Surface Mining, an agency within the Department of the Interior, to promulgate regulations, to fund state regulatory and reclamation efforts, and to ensure consistency among state regulatory programs.


The SMCRA grew out of a concern about the environmental effects of strip mining. Coal had been mined in the United States since the 1740s, but surface mining did not become widespread until the 1930s. At the end of that decade, states began to enact the first laws regulating the coal mining industry: West Virginia in 1939, Indiana in 1941, Illinois in 1943, and Pennsylvania in 1945. Despite those 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, but these state laws were largely unsuccessful at stemming the environmental impacts of surface mining. One problem was that the laws varied from state to state, which enabled mining operations to relocate to states where regulations were less strict. Meanwhile, surface mining became increasingly common. In 1963, just thirty-three percent of American coal came from surface mines. By 1973, that figure had reached sixty percent.

In 1974 and again in 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.

Regulatory program

The regulation of active mines under the SMCRA has five major components -

Standards of Performance - The SMCRA and its implementing regulations set environmental standards that mines must follow while operating, and achieve when reclaiming mined land.

Permitting - The SMCRA requires that companies obtain permits before conducting surface mining. Permit applications must describe what the pre-mining 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 - The 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 that the reclamation was successful.

Inspection and Enforcement - The SMCRA gives government regulators the authority to inspect mining operations, and to punish companies that violate the 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 - The 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.

Reclamation Program

The SMCRA created an Abandoned Mine Land fund to pay for the cleanup 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 31.5 cents per ton for surface mined coal, 15 cents per ton for coal mined underground, and 10 cents per ton for lignite. Eighty percent of AML fees are distributed to states with an approved reclamation program (see below) 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.

State/Federal Relationship

In Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Reclamation Association, Inc., 452 U.S. 264 (1981), the Supreme Court of the United States found the SMCRA does not violate the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Like most environmental statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s, the 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 the 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 the 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 sixty percent of the coal reserves in the West. This does not exclude them entering into cooperative agreements with states with approved programs.


Many states do not require large mining companies to post a surety bond for the costs of mine reclamation. Instead, these companies can hold their own assets up as “self-bonding.” The bankruptcy of large coal mining companies may imperil the $3.7 billion state regulators have allowed in self-bonding. For example, shortly before it declared bankruptcy Peabody Energy held $1.47 billion in self-bonding liabilities, including $900.5 million in Wyoming alone.

How Does this Relate to Reformism?

Coal is either extracted from deep inside the earth or removed from its surface. The former is known as underground mining, the latter as strip mining or mountaintop removal. Either process contributes a high level of damage to the environment. Here are some of the ways that coal mining pollutes the environment.

#12 Noise pollution

One of the most obvious, albeit perhaps the least harmful, environmental effects of coal mining is noise pollution. Coal mining is a loud, day and night long process that disrupts the lives of those in the surrounding communities that reduces the quality of life, which can go on for decades.

#11 Loss Of Wildlife

Coal mining requires a large expanse of territory. When a mining operation moves in, it invades and destroys sizable ranges of wilderness area, displacing the native fauna and removing habitat and food sources. This eventually results in an imbalanced ecosystem and even the endangerment or extinction of entire species.

#10 Sink Holes

Another environmental effect of coal mining is "mine subsidence" or the earth sinking as a result of a disturbance to its foundation. This occurs when the coal deep below our planet's surface is removed from its bed.

#9 Topographical Alteration

Coal mining irreparably damages plant life and soil, creating barren patches of land that are not only aesthetically unpleasing but contribute to loss of valuable topsoil, erosion and dust storms.

#8 Flooding

Coal mining and preparation generates millions of gallons of highly toxic, semi-solid waste called "slurry." To contain the slurry, dams are often built in between the mountains from where the coal is being mined. There are several documented instances in which slurry dams have failed, resulting in deadly floods and ensuing environmental disasters.

#7 Water Pollution

Highly acidic runoff from coal stocks and handling facilities, known as acid mine drainage, infiltrates waterways, contaminating local water supplies and affecting the PH balance in the surrounding lakes and streams making in dangerous to consume.

#6 Air Pollution

Coal dust, in addition to being dirty and unpleasant smelling, is dangerous if inhaled over an extensive period of time. People with prolonged exposure to coal dust are at high risk of contracting "Black lung disease," which left untreated can lead to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and heart failure.

#5 Fires

Since coal is combustible, the threat of fire is another example of the environmental effects of coal mining. If a fire occurs in a coal bed, it can last for years or even decades, potentially spreading and releasing noxious fumes into the surrounding community.

#4 Toxicity

Coal and coal waste contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, which are highly toxic both to plant and animal life.

#3 Acid Rain

Possibly one of the scariest environmental effects of coal mining is the threat of acid rain. The threat of acid mine drainage creates the possibility that through evaporation and/or condensation, the acid from coal mining operations will make its way into the atmosphere and eventually return to the Earth in the form of "acid rain," thus perpetuating the cycle of pollution.

#2 Radiation

Coal contains trace elements of radium and uranium, which, when released into the environment, can lead to radioactive contamination. While it's true that these elements occur in small amounts, enough coal is routinely burned at coal processing plants to produce dangerous levels of radioactive waste.

#1 Climate Change

High levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is released during the mining process, contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer. Carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, is released in the combustion, burning, process, when coal is used to fuel electric generators and steam engines. As a result, global warming is probably one of the most significant and widely felt environmental effects of coal mining.


And so the story goes on and on. If companies have enough money they can get around the laws passed by state governments governments and the federal government. Their usual penance is a simple fine that is well within their capabilities. Further, and worse, in the case of this law, certain states have set up laws that allow companies to be accountable to themselves to clean up their messes when they are done with a mining project, which leaves a gaping hole open for environmental trouble if the company goes belly up and files for for bankruptcy, which has happened. So, a company can mine a mineral that is now essentially becoming obsolete, damage the environment while doing it, pay a small fine to get out of trouble, and then move on to somewhere else and do it again only to repeat the cycle over and over again. Worse, in some cases, their is no payback at all. They can just make the mess and leave with no threat of legal repercussions at all. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.


  1. Thank you. This may open a few minds.

    1. That is the general idea. Thank you for taking the time to read the article, the more people we reach, the better. :-)

  2. Thanks for keeping us informed