Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act: at best a Mixed Blessing

By John McFerrin

This month is the 40th anniversary of the federal regulation of strip mining. On August 3rd, 1977, in a White House Rose Garden ceremony, President Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  A round number anniversary is as good a time as any to look at how the Act has worked.

There is no doubt that some good has come from the Act.  Before the Act the regulation of strip mining was spotty, to put it mildly.  There was next to no reclamation, little water protection, no attention paid to what would happen after the mining was over.  Even with all the complaints about lax enforcement, political interference with enforcement, etc. it is still true that the Act brought some beneficial practices to the coal fields.

The Act came largely from the movement to abolish strip mining in the late 60s and early 70s.  Even if the term “abolitionist” had lost its national currency with the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, it was very much alive in West Virginia as West Virginians talked about the abolition of strip mining.  Ken Hechler introduced a bill in Congress in 1971 to abolish strip mining.  Jay Rockefeller ran for Governor in 1972 on a platform of abolishing strip mining.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act that reached President Carter’s desk in 1977 was a compromise.  Instead of abolition, it legitimized strip mining.  It also approved of mountaintop removal.  President Carter recognized that it was a compromise.  “In many ways,” he told his guests at the signing, “this has been a disappointing effort.” Calling it a “watered down” bill, Carter added, “I’m not completely satisfied with the legislation. I would prefer to have a stricter strip mining bill.”

The Rose Garden signing ceremony was attended by coalfield residents and environmentalists who had waged a campaign to abolish strip-mining.  At the same time, many coalfield residents and environmentalists refused to attend the ceremony.  They had fought for years to abolish strip mining, not control it.  They did not want a law that bill that made strip mining acceptable.

Looking back, the strip mines that we considered an abomination before the 1977 Act seem minor.  Although it feels odd to consider it this way, to those of us who are living through the mountaintop removal era, a mine snaking around the hillside, disturbing one hundred acres, feels like the good old days.  When mines are routinely blasting off hundreds of feet of mountaintop, disturbing thousands and thousands of acres, it is easy to be nostalgic for a time when two hundred acres of disturbance was considered a big mine.

Looking back, those who opposed the Act look prescient.  At the time, trading having to put up with some, by today’s standards, small strip mines in exchange for reasonable reclamation, protection for off-site areas, water protection, etc. could have looked reasonable.  But look at where the Act has led us.

The Act allowed not just strip mining but mountaintop removal strip mining.  We have mines that cover thousands of acres.  We now have over two million acres of acres of strip mined land.  We have whole mountains being blown apart.  We have a human alteration of the terrain that is unprecedented in human history.

Trading tolerating mines that snaked around the hillside for better reclamation, etc. may have seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time.  Looking back, it looks like a sucker’s bet.  Had we known that the Act would unleash mountaintop removal as it is currently practiced, the compromise would look a lot different.  From the perspective of 2017, 1977 looks like the time when we should have crushed the egg from which Godzilla would later emerge.

Even beyond the unleashing of mountaintop removal mining, the big idea of the Act never worked.  A strip mine was supposed to be like a pimple on a teenager’s forehead.  It pops up and is ugly while it is there but then it is gone.  The land is reclaimed, it resumes its former purpose, or a better one, and everything goes forward.

With mining, this never happened.  The Highlands Voice has had several stories about old mines that were supposedly reclaimed but are still leaking toxic materials.  The Highlands Voice, December, 2015, January, 2017.  Those sites are by no means little blips in the land use, here today but disappearing soon, the land returned to its original condition.  They are the gifts that keep on giving.

How this came to be is a combination of science and politics.  The politics shows up in the enforcement.  Coal occupies such an exalted place in our political firmament that no law which affects the coal industry could ever be fully enforced.  There will always be some slack, and the slack will favor the coal industry.  Perhaps if the Act had always been vigorously enforced we would be closer to the Act’s goal of making mining a temporary land use where land returns to what it was before.

The science explains that the incomplete reclamation is a result of the impossibility of the task.  These are complex systems.  We can’t just jumble it all up, put it all back, and expect the land to be as good as new.  It is arrogance on our part to think that making post-mining land as good or better than it was before is even possible.

The other big idea of the Act that never worked out was the idea that we needed to allow mountaintop removal because we needed flat land.

The idea of the Act was that mountaintop removal would be rare.  Most mined land would be returned to its original contour.  Land would be left flat only if there was a specific need for flat land.  If we needed a spot for a school or a factory, we could mine the spot and leave the land flat.

In 1977, when the Act passed, this may have seemed like a good idea.  Arguments in favor of this made the coal seem like a secondary value.  It was the precious flat land that was the real goal.

Maybe this was what Jay Rockefeller thought he was doing when he abandoned his earlier opposition to strip mining and embraced the Act, including mountaintop removal.  Maybe it all sounded so good in theory.  We would make most mines return the land to the shape they had found it.  In a few spots we would let people leave it flat so that we could use the land.

In practice, it has not worked out.  Maybe if we had restricted mountaintop removal to spots where there was a specific need with specific plans (including financing) for a school or a factory then the idea would have worked.  But we didn’t.  We allowed mountaintop removal to proceed willy nilly based upon vague notions that flat land in remote locations with no services might be valuable someday.  As a result we have well over a million acres of mountaintop removal land.  Less than three per cent of it has been used for economic development.  If we assume five acres per school, we could build every public school in the entire country on existing mountaintop removal sites and still have over half of the land left over.

So how do things look after forty years?  It is undoubtedly true that the Act did some good.  Without it the mines would have had no regulation.  They might have kept getting bigger and bigger, just as they did under the Act, until we had mountaintop removal strip mining with no regulation.  The Act has given us some reclamation, some protection for off-site areas, some protection for water.  Had enforcement been better we would have gotten more but what we did get was certainly valuable.

At the same time the Act unleashed and legitimized mountaintop removal mining.  Considering what mountaintop removal is doing to the land and people, the Act has been a mixed blessing.