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Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA, US)

 
 

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

 
 

Originally passed in 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA; PL 95-87; 30 USC ch. 25; SMCRA) regulates strip or surface coal mining permits and coal mining area reclamations in the US. The Act is administered by the US Department of the Interior.

SMCRA was a response to rapid expansion of surface coal mining in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the effort to create a national, uniform law that applied to surface mining of coal, and efforts to regulate the remediation of strip mined areas following coal extraction. Congress first attempted to create a strip coal mining Act in both 1974 and 1975. Those bills were vetoed by President Ford. President Carter, who had pledged to respond to adverse ecological conditions created by coal mining in the Appalachian region, signed a revised bill in 1977.

The Act created environmental performance standards for coal strip mining operations designed to “protect the health and safety of the public and minimize the damage to the environment resulting from surface coal mining operations . . .” While the guidelines and requirements are federal, States were charged with issuing permits, inspections and enforcement of the Act. Small mining operations, those that produce less than 100,000 tons per year, were exempt from the provisions of the Act.

The reclamation portion of the Act requires mining operators to return the mined area to its “approximate original contour.” There has been significant debate over the meaning of this requirement, and many reclaimed mining areas on mountaintops do not return the land to its approximate original contour, and instead leave high level plateaus (see the mountaintop removal mining entry in this dictionary for further discussion and the link at the end of that entry for a gallery of mountaintop removal mining images).

The Act also specifies that “spoil” (the material removed during the coal mining operation) that is not employed to rebuild the area during reclamation shall be disposed of in designated areas within the permitted mining site. Spoil shall not be placed where it degrades “surface or ground waters or exceed effluent limitations . . . “. In addition, the land area designated for spoil shall also be reclaimed and revegetated consistent with the surrounding area, and the reclaimed area shall be appropriate for postmining use.

SMCRA also provides minimal standards for coal waste deposits, which shall not be placed in heads of hollows or valley fills. There are also rules for the construction and stability of valley fills, the handling of topsoil removed during mining, the protection of the local hydrological system, the use of explosives, and revegetation of the site.

SMCRA requires mining operators to post a bond for reclamation of the site. Such bonds typically do not cover the costs of reclamation, and there have been instances where companies forfeit these bonds rather than reclaim the site because the cost of reclamation is greater than the bonds.

The Act allows inspectors of the site to close the site when conditions that create imminent danger are present. When other violations exist, the inspector issues a notice of violation, and the mine operator has 90 days to remedy the violation. Where inspections generate numerous or repeat violation, or when violations are designated as willfull, the site shall be required to a “show cause” document explaining why its permit should not be suspended or revoked. The Act also creates a point system for violations, and the total number of points accumulated determines the civil penalty between $32 and $ 8,500 per violation. As these civil penalty guidelines indicate, civil penalties for violation of SMCRA tend to result in small fines.

In this dictionary, see also the entry on strip mines.

 
 
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