In case you missed it, SMCRA turned 33 yesterday

August 4, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

The Black Thunder Strip Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the United States. Photo: Plains Justice.

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the day President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the federal law that governs strip mining.

On its Web site, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is touting the law’s accomplishments and the new measures being taken by the Obama administration to fulfill the law’s promise:

OSM has taken the lead in finding innovative ways to regulate coal production, reclaim abandoned and inactive coal mines, explore new technologies, and provide technical assistance to its state and tribal regulatory partners. As OSM positions itself to fulfill SMCRA’s promise of a cleaner environment and safer communities, its goal is to do so collaboratively, with its state and tribal partners, as well as its sister federal agencies. While we reflect on what we have accomplished under SMCRA, we realize there is still work to be done – and that work has begun.

But the Citizens Coal Council is hardly impressed … In its own statement yesterday, the council said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the White House are not serious about protecting coalfield residents and the environment from the adverse impacts of mining:

Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of Citizens Coal Council, said “Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is working to undercut the federal law by promoting weaker regulations and has ignored citizens’ pleas to fully enforce SMCRA.”

“The White House and Secretary Salazar refused to even think about improving environmental enforcement at the Minerals Management Service until an oil company’s terrible performance killed people and damaged our wetlands, Gulf Coast fisheries and beaches,” said Erickson.

“Irresponsible coal mining companies have already killed people, poisoned rivers, destroyed families’ homes, left communities without drinking water, and caused devastating floods. But the White House and Secretary Salazar have created a regulatory environment that lets the most irresponsible companies violate federal and state laws with impunity,” Erickson continued.

Citizens Coal Council Acting Chairman John Wathen said “When citizens met last year with Interior officials to encourage consideration of other nominees to run the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), because President Obama’s choice, Joseph Pizarchik, had let the coal industry get away with destructive practices in Pennsylvania, we  were told not to worry. We were told that the Administration and Secretary Salazar would set the policy. A year later, Secretary Salazar’s policy continues to keep OSMRE’s record of subservience to the worst lawbreakers in the coal industry. Interior also continues to green light strip mine permits where full reclamation under SMCRA is highly unlikely to be achieved. While the OSMRE has increased meetings with citizens, the agency reduces enforcement resources and allows states to fail to even meet the minimum required number of inspections under SMCRA.”

The Citizens Coal Council noted these comments, submitted in June to OSMRE, by longtime citizen group lawyer Tom FitzGerald:

The change in leadership offers a potential opportunity for a rededication to the principles of the 1977 mining law “to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations” and to give effect to the mission of the Clean Water Act to “end water pollution”. The state and federal regulatory agencies have the necessary tools to demand much more accountability in all forms of surface mine planning and performance with respect to mine planning, reducing the size and number of valley fills, reforming blasting regulations to better protect the public, restricting the appropriation of public streams for sediment control, eliminating new high and moderate hazard coal waste impoundments and requiring closure and dewatering of old ones; and broadening monitoring and pollution control obligations of coal companies. Unfortunately, the principles established by Congress have been lost in the hands of a federal agency that has, for the better part of its existence, been largely captive to the wishes of the industry it regulates.

I can’t help but think about House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who has been busy lately pushing legislation to respond to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf … and all the while ignoring the “pervasive and irreversible” damage being done by the coal industry in his own backyard.

It’s been three years since the 30th anniversary of SMCRA, when citizen groups appeared before Rahall’s committee and outlined the many ways that the law isn’t being properly enforced to protect the coalfields.

After those hearings, Rahall promised to closely examine the citizen complaints.  But since then, we haven’t seen anything out of Rahall’s personal office or his committee to deal with these problems, despite the many things that could be done.

Instead, Congressman Rahall is leading the charge to try to fight the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce mining’s impacts in Appalachia.  And where has this political strategy gotten him? Last time I checked, mining companies are working as hard as they can to try to help Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s friend Spike Maynard unseat Congressman Rahall.

4 Responses to “In case you missed it, SMCRA turned 33 yesterday”

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    Anyone interested in how SMCRA came to be, which is a pretty interesting story, can read a detailed account in Chad Montrie’s excellent book, “To Save the Land and People.”

    Used copies go for $5.00 at

    I disagree with a number of Montrie’s judgments, but his scholarship and attention to detail seem very impressive to this lay, non-historian reader. Reading the book can really help put today’s coalfields issues in perspective.

  2. rhmooney3 says:

    Looking further ahead from a 1970s-vintage coal mine reclamation inspector‏

    Environmentally, the mining of coal is many times better than it had been prior to the enactment of the federal reclamation law of 1977, but its regulation is still far from fulfilling those mandates of three-decades ago.

    The resultant agency of that legislation OSM was made impotent soon after its beginning — even before James Watt become Interior Secretary to relish finishing it…with as dull a knife as he could find and with help from Steve Griles.

    As one of those who was in the first wave of the federal reclamation enforcers, I well know the carnage from starting the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to implement the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Much of the incoming fire we faced in the field during the beginning was from our own headquarters. The leadership and command structure of our new bureaucracy was too self-consumed to be of any help to those few of us stretched thin in the coalfields.

    When one of the agency’s assistant directors said to us new federal reclamation inspectors — nearly all of us were well-experienced state inspectors — that he would drop everything and be right there if any of us got phyically assaulted we retorted that he would be coming to our grave site since it would long over by then.

    The Department of Justice filed over a dozen cases against individuals physically assaulting OSM inspectors and U.S. Marshalls had to accompany us in certain areas, mostly in Tennessee. In 1986, three OSM inspectors died in a helicopter crash in Tennesse, but that’s also forgotten.

    Personally, I contacted the FBI about written and verbal threats…and I was even given an armed escort out of a public meeting because the director of natural resources in Ohio feared that I would be assaulted — not good press as he was trying to run to be governor. Just because a coal company vice president stood up in the meeting to announce that he had seen me there and could not believe that I hadn’t been taken care of before then. (Something I had heard from him and others nunerous times before.)

    Neither citizen groups, politicans or even OSM have been there for coal mine reclamation inspectors before now. It would be false hope to believe that will ever change since more-of-the-same has come from every promise of change before now.

    Government does well at pretending to regulate as has been shown many times.

    An unanswered plea for help

  3. DaisyMay says:

    I’m with you, Ken, on Rahall. I hope somebody shows him this blog. He was the lead sponsor on the CLEAR Act. Commended by Nancy Pelosi for his leadership, Rahall was quoted as saying “While we may not know the exact cause of the incident, we clearly know what contributed to it. A culture of cozy relationships that had regulators interviewing for jobs on the same rigs they were supposed to be inspecting.” HELLO — how many DEP inspectors are ex-coal miners or vice versa? When will he wake up and realize the coal industry is not in his corner. Quit pandering to them — it’s doing you no good. If you really feel that the fox is watching the hen house, then do something about it in your own state!!!!!

  4. rhmooney3 says:

    To see what’s ahead, look at what’s behind.

    Center for Science in the Public Interest


    Coal strip mining has affected Appalachian life, peace of mind, livelihood, and environment, but not to the extent that citizens are helpless; they can act. This report is meant to inspire citizens to employ proper methods to ensure the enforcement of state strip-mining laws. The study looks at Appalachia’s three leading coal producing states–Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The methods can be used in any state–East or West–affected by this massive land disturbance and environmental threat. Forces regulating strip mining are more responsible in some states than in others, but even greater responsibility can be obtained through active citizen pressure and vigilance. No state laws are perfect. Nowhere in Appalachia does an agency ensure that lands that cannot be reclaimed will not be mined, and that lands that are mined are reclaimed. Insights into the state agencies` shortcomings as well as their virtues are provided. Specific recommendations are presented, many involving little or no budgetary increase, that will aid in the enforcement of strip-mining laws. While the problems dealt with focus on Appalachia, they extend to all regions where forests, farms, and towns are being stripped to exploit the minerals beneath. Strip mining affects human lives whether in Appalachia or in the Northern Great Plains, but its effects are better seen in the ravaged eastern mountain region. In Appalachia, coal is king and has been so for years. The coal companies are ruthless, their profits vast, their pressure overwhelming, and their footprints gigantic. Only enlightened and dedicated citizens can protect themselves from these forces.

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