REFLECTIONS ON SMCRA AT 40

Posted on August 4, 2017 by Robert Uram

Through the persistent efforts of Representative Mo Udall and many other advocates for federal regulation of surface mining, on August 3, 1977, after a decade of legislative debate and two vetoes by President Ford, President Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. SMCRA established comprehensive national reclamation standards designed to ensure that all surface coal mines would be reclaimed and required coal companies to pay a fee on each ton of coal they mined to fund a program to eliminate environmental and safety hazards from abandoned coal mines. SMCRA created the Office of Surface Mining Control Reclamation and Enforcement to administer the law and provided the OSMRE with extensive oversight authority over state and federal reclamation programs. SMCRA is an important milestone in the environmental movement in our country.

SMCRA created stringent new reclamation standards that raised the baseline for mining reclamation and provided needed federal funding and oversight. Coal mining reclamation regulation has come a long way since the days when two States sued to have SMCRA declared unconstitutional on grounds that it violated the Fifth and Tenth Amendments and the Interstate Commerce Clause and armed United States Marshalls were needed to accompany OSMRE inspectors to coal mines to ensure their safety. Over the past 40 years, despite their many differences and the active resistance of some States to enactment of SMCRA, the OSMRE and States and Indian tribes have accomplished much in making the coal fields a better place for people to live and work. More than 2 million acres of mined land have been reclaimed. Efforts to improve the quality of reclamation, through programs like the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, are ongoing. Offsite impacts from mining operations are closely monitored and have been greatly reduced in number and severity better protecting the environment and the people living in the vicinity of mines. Cemeteries and homes are protected. Coal field residents are entitled to participate in oversight and the oversight process is open and transparent.

The Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, while chronically underfunded, is a model for effective federal/state/Indian tribe cooperation. The AML program has improved the environment and public safety by closing more than 40,000 abandoned mine shafts, eliminating nearly 1,000 miles of high walls, addressing hazards at 3,700 dangerous water bodies, cleaning up 129,000 acres of dangerous spoils and embankments, restoring 35,000 acres of streams and land and replacing infrastructure for over 53,000 polluted water supplies. Mining reclamation contributes to the local economies and provides good jobs.

While the program has had its difficulties, and many serious concerns need to be addressed, including the significant effects of mountain top removal mining, had the Congress never passed SMCRA, life for people who live and work in the coalfields would be far worse today. Earl Bandy, a long-time OSMRE employee whose father and grandfather were coal miners in Harlan County, testified before Congress on the 30th anniversary of SMCRA that:

I cannot imagine what our nation's land and water resources would be today if it were not for SMCRA. Congress' enactment of such a forward-thinking law was an awakening and recognition of the potentially dangerous and harmful cumulative effects of coal mining on the land and water.

His words ring true today. While implementation of SMCRA could have and should have been better and more effective, the success of SMCRA still needs to be recognized and appreciated. Many people are responsible for these successes. OSMRE’s dedicated employees have labored long and hard, many times without any internal or external support. Many of those employees are genuine environmental heroes for their dedication and contributions. The many thousands of State program employees are critical to the SMCRA’s success. They have become increasingly aligned with the goals of SMCRA and have developed a shared commitment to making SMCRA work. Some coal companies still question the need for stringent environmental protection laws; many companies have developed a good environmental ethic and take pride in their reclamation. The really bad actors and wildcat miners who simply flouted the law have been driven out of the industry.

A great deal of credit also goes to the citizen groups, like the Kentucky Resources Council. The citizen groups have been insistent that SMCRA be fully implemented and have filed dozens of lawsuits to force state and federal regulators to do their jobs. Without their efforts, the program would have lagged even further behind. The country is also indebted to watershed groups like the Friends of the Cheat River in West Virginia, which are devoted to making their communities better by helping to clean up of streams long polluted by acid mine drainage. Through their efforts and the assistance of their federal and state partners, thousands of miles of orange acid mine drainage-polluted streams have been restored to productive use.

Forty years is the blink of an eye. Good environmental regulation is a task that never ends and that will always be needed. Much has been accomplished; much needs to be done. The Congress should ensure that OSMRE and its State counterparts are well funded to carry out their regulatory responsibilities and the Congress should fully fund the abandoned mine reclamation program. As we recognize SMCRA’s 40th anniversary, the country should rededicate itself to the task of ensuring that every acre of mined land is restored to productive use and that the legacy of environmental harm and public hazards from abandoned mines is wiped out. 



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