Stacked up against most northeast Wyoming coal mines are the mounds of dirt disturbed in order to dig down to the thick black coal seams beneath the surface. The dark underbelly is exposed for months or years before eventually returning to the light brown of windswept prairie.
Reclamation is an ongoing part of coal mining in Wyoming, and companies are quick to point out the ways they’ve followed the rules. But cleaning up Wyoming mines became a matter of serious concern during the two-year downturn in the coal economy.
In 2015 and 2016, three large coal companies went bankrupt, drawing attention to the $2 billion in unsecured cleanup costs at Wyoming coal mines. Conservation groups rallied against the practice of self-bonding, when a company’ financial strength is used as a guarantee for eventual cleanup costs. They argued that if companies went under, the state could be faced with reclaiming the largest open surface coal mines in the country, and paying the tab.
But the coal economy has since improved. All those large companies are now fully bonded, and Wyoming is looking into its financial assurance rules, beefing up the way it judges a company’s finances before allowing self-bonds.
Environmental groups are favorable to all of these developments. But the heated debates during the bad times still need to be had, they say. Nearly half of the land disturbed for coal mining since the early ‘80s is still unreclaimed, and advocates warn that the long-term impacts of coal mining to water and the landscape are still a concern. So are the financial risks to coal companies with reclamation liabilities.
State regulators and coal firms say the bust proved the strength of rules in place, and new rules being developed will keep Wyoming off the hook if and when the largest surface mines in the country are decommissioned.
Companies feel they’ve proved their worth when it comes to clean up.
“Even with those companies that went bankrupt, mining never stopped and reclamation never stopped,” said Travis Deti, spokesman for the Wyoming Mining Association, referring to Peabody Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal filing for Ch. 11.
By one measure, Wyoming firms have reclaimed about 64 percent of the land disturbed since the state developed its existing coal program in the 1980s, according to state counts.
But judging reclamation at any point in time is difficult. Of the three phases that precede letting the company walk away from a mine site, the last step is the longest: a 10-year wait and see period in which water, soil and wildlife are monitored. Last year, seven tracts of land, between 90 and 2,000 acres, cleared that final hurdle. But that doesn’t imply seven mine sites closed. Reclamation is piecemeal.
The timeline of private companies using public land, however, is one of the things that advocacy groups consider, along with environmental concerns stated in federal environmental assessments, like the long-term impacts of draining water from the local aquifer.
Deti, of the mining association, says the federal oversight proves that coal mining is heavily regulated and that water is one of the many areas that are reviewed.
“Reclamation is part of a mine plan,” he said. “Before a shovel of earth is turned, before permits are approved, you have to have your mine plan, which includes [clean up and bonding].”
The fact that reclamation continued during the bankruptcy period is a good thing, said Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners advocacy group in the Powder River Basin.
Bonding rules are likely to improve, and that too is positive, Anderson said.
But some of the concerns from the bankruptcy period are still relevant.
“There still is a lot of uncertainty in the market,” she said. “There is a lot of risk.”
The Resource Council has been a consistent voice in the push for Wyoming to update its bonding rules to ensure clean up. The downturn instigated a passionate debate over whether the state should continue to allow for self-bonding given coal’s vulnerability.
Now Wyoming is considering asking companies to prove financial strength via a credit rating instead of financial statements, allowing them to look ahead at a company’s projected financial health, rather than look back at how it did over the last year.
The updates offer a surprising change of tone compared to the stubborn back and forth about bonding in years’ past when both states and coal companies argued for self-bonds.
“I think the bottom line is that we know that self-bonding is going to change and that’s fair,” said Deti of the Mining Association. “The state was in a pretty precarious position a few years ago.”
Firms still want the ability to self-bond, and the state hasn’t nixed the practice from its rule book, but it will change.
How the bonding rules will shake out is unclear. A preliminary draft updating the rules was released last month, and meetings in Cheyenne and Gillette reviewed the proposals last week. But the final draft won’t likely go through until late next year and all sides are planning to add their two cents to the state’s ideas.
Concerns that projected declines in coal could make companies more vulnerable financially and lead to a reclamation mess don’t really matter, some say. From a regulatory point of view, the key is reducing liability to the state by holding the right people accountable, said Kyle Wendtland, advisor of the Department of Environmental Quality’s land quality division.
Environmental groups are still wary of the link between reclamation and the market, though supportive of the rule changes, said Anderson, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“If one of these mines became orphaned or even long-term idled, where it’s essentially a zombie or ghost mine, the amount of facilities and land that hasn’t been reclaimed is a real concern,” she said.
Some of Wyoming’s sage grouse leaders say the discord that began after the Interior Department announced it would review the bird’s protections in the West is giving way to Wyoming’s collaborative approach.
The comments were made at a meeting of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team last week, a body made up of federal and state agents, environmentalists and industry representatives that has steered sage grouse management in Wyoming for nearly a decade.
Sage grouse declines have concerning implications in the West. The bird is an indicator of the health of the western landscape and carries a risk that the federal government will list the species as endangered. A listing would put limits on one of Wyoming’s primary economic drivers, oil and gas development as well as restrict ranchers and mining operations in the state.
The establishment of federal plans in 2015 kept that listing at bay, but earlier this year the Trump Administration said it would review and potentially change the plans. Public comment on initial proposed changes closed earlier this month.
The review, and some of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments about what could be changed, kick-started a protest campaign from conservationists, warnings from the Wyoming and Colorado governors and some hesitation from industries like mining worried about long term predictability.
Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team, tried to quiet some of the discord. He reminded members that the federal plans do have room for improvement and the hysteria of a top down rewrite of the plans was overblown.
Budd criticized media coverage of the issue, and said public perception of potential changes to the sage grouse plans have been far from the reality as he sees it.
Brian Rutledge, a policy adviser for the Audubon Society and a longtime conservation voice on Wyoming’s sage grouse management team, pointed out that it was rhetoric from the federal government that confused and frustrated people in the West.
There’s been a lot of fear about what is going to happen with the 11-state management plans brokered by the Bureau of Land Management and reflective of the strategies laid out by Wyoming’s state approach, he said.
“Let’s get over that,” Budd said. “All of us.”
Gov. Matt Mead’s policy adviser on sage grouse, Mike McGrady, said the tone from federal leadership had improved, particularly with the Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The Bureau of Land Management received more than 200,000 comments on the department’s initial notice opening up the plans, many of those from letters, according to members of the sage grouse team.
Different states have different issues with their plans, said Budd. For Idaho, that could be a wholesale revision, for Oregon no significant changes.
In Wyoming, home to more than 30 percent of the bird’s population, changes will be suggested that clarify or improve the current strategy, Budd said.
“We are not looking at changing what we do in Wyoming,” he said. “We are looking at making it clear.”
Environmentalists in the room said they hoped that change was happening and that the federal approach would be methodical. But they’d wait and see what comes out of the government’s response to public comment in January before they felt optimistic.
Aaron Baldes thought the song sounded dark when he first heard it playing on his car radio.
“I don’t wanna be alive…” the chorus began.
“It kind of stopped me in my tracks,” said Baldes, the singer of Riverton band Drones Over Yellowstone. “It’s such a dark way to start a song, but it kind of had that poppy vibe to it.”
Baldes kept listening as he drove to band practice. The song, the rapper Logic, described a person talking with a volunteer on the national suicide hotline. The title of the song is the number: “1-800-273-8255.”
A line of the second chorus caught Baldes’ attention with its power and meaning.
“I want you to be alive.”
Baldes and the band scrapped the production schedule for their next album and used a four-day studio session to record a cover of the the Logic song. The band released it on Nov. 18 — National Survivor of Suicide Loss Day. They hope to release the video by the end of the year.
The band has been working with state experts, including the Fremont County Suicide Prevention Task Force, to promote the song and it’s message.
It’s a message that hits home for the band members. They’d lost a friend to suicide days before the recording session and have dealt with suicide and mental health matters in others ways, Baldes added.
“The biggest thing is just trying to let people know that someone cares; that if you’re in that dark place, get some help,” he said. “Just taking action to get behind that message definitely helped me at least come to terms with what happened and feel better about it than I would have otherwise, I’m assuming.”
But Baldes wanted to do more with the song. The band hopes to share its message with people who need it and prevent more suicides. Wyoming consistently ranks among the highest nationally in suicide deaths per capita. Fremont County’s suicide rate tends to hover at three or four times the national average, according to Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen.
Knowing he wasn’t an expert, Baldes reached out to Kelly Rees with the Fremont County Suicide Prevention Task Force to make sure the band addressed the issue in a way that’s helpful and points people to the best resources, he said.
“I was like, this is great either way, because we’re expressing something that I feel is important for us to express, but let’s make this thing bigger,” he said. “Let’s try to not just have this be about us expressing ourselves, let’s try to get the word out in as big a way as possible and involve some people who actually know what they’re talking about.”
Rees helped the band connect with local radio stations for a couple of radio spots, and the band has been working with the task force on ideas for the upcoming video. The task force also posted the song on its Facebook page and may look into offering the video for use at local schools, Rees said.
“We’re kind of just helping promote it as much as we can with the Fremont County Suicide Prevention Task Force,” Rees said. “The task force just kind of came on board and was really supportive of what the band was doing and how that could be beneficial, not only in Fremont County, but around the state — to have somebody from Wyoming recording the song and promoting the song.”
The band members also talked with Sarah Spafford, an injury prevention coordinator with the Wyoming Department of Health. She was pleased to see a band using music as a tool to tell people about the national hotline and to spread the message that there is hope and help available, she said.
The response from the community has been positive, Baldes said.
“It’s such a big issue here; everybody’s been affected by it in one way or another, whether it’s the struggles that they’ve been through and overcome or somebody they’ve known has either struggled or gone through it themselves,” he said. “I think that everybody’s just been kind of happy to be able to have something they can share and at least raise some awareness about where to get some help.”
The cover is a departure from the band’s usual style of blues-infused rock. They typically play lighthearted songs for bar crowds. Suicide isn’t a topic the band has covered before, Baldes said.
Heading into the session, the band felt a little trepidation about recording something completely different than what they’re used to, Baldes said.
“But once we got the song recorded, everybody felt really good about it,” he said. “It was a new experience for us, and it did give us a unique way to express our support for this.”
He and the band members have learned from the task force that people often are afraid to talk about depression and suicide. They think they don’t have anything useful to say, or that they’ll make the problem worse, he said.
“Our biggest initiative behind this thing is trying to get people in local communities to just pay attention to the people around them, whether it’s a coworker or it’s a brother or it’s a friend if they’re feeling down. Try to educate yourself on those warning signs and stuff like that and try to be involved in having that conversation,” he said. “Just don’t be afraid to have that conversation. Sometimes all people need to hear is that it’ll be OK, and I care if you’re here or not.”