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After mine cleanup win, conservation advocates say there's more to be done

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Coal Train

A train transports coal on Aug. 27, 2017, from a mine south of Gillette. Wyoming lawmakers passed a new approach to funding mine cleanup during the recently completed budget session. 

The novel approach to mine cleanup funding approved by Wyoming lawmakers this year won rare bipartisan approval, but conservation groups say reclamation policy still has a long way to go.

Coal companies have been required under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to fund the restoration of disturbed lands since 1977. The law, which outlawed the previously rampant practice of abandoning spent mines without mitigating their ecological harms, proved effective.

But the law was developed on the assumption that new mines would continue to be developed; and now that mines are contracting instead of expanding, and the companies on the hook for reclamation are going bankrupt, “regulators are just not prepared to deal with this situation,” said Peter Morgan, senior attorney for the Sierra Club’s environmental law program, during a call hosted by reclamation advocates on Thursday.

Morgan and the other speakers, calling in from Appalachia and the West, argued that the 45-year-old federal law, passed long before the start of coal’s decline, is no longer doing enough to prevent mines from being abandoned or to ensure the land is reclaimed.

Until several years ago, many established coal companies committed a sizable chunk of their reclamation obligations through self-bonding — essentially a promise that they’d pay when they needed to. Then some of those companies went bankrupt, those promises disappeared and Wyoming and many other mining states got rid of self-bonding. Which left most companies paying premiums for surety bonds financed through third-party insurers.

Wyoming relies heavily on revenue from fossil fuel extraction, including coal mining. The state alone doesn’t have much power to reverse an industry-wide trend, but it has — people hope — figured out how to ease the burden of reclamation bonding for coal companies.

A law passed by the Legislature in March directed the state to establish voluntary assigned trusts for mining companies, which can choose to hold some or all of their reclamation dollars with the state, rather than using surety bonds. The coal industry, increasingly encumbered by its existing expenses, welcomed the prospect of lower costs.

“Reclamation bonds are expensive,” Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Star-Tribune in February. “Sureties are getting more and more expensive for operators to pay for. And, you know, this is just another tool that they can use if they want.”

Wyoming’s new law is unlike any other approach to reclamation in the U.S. It hasn’t been tested yet. But ideally, if companies participate, the program will succeed where federal law has struggled: It will make future cleanup bankruptcy-proof.

“There are some abilities to do reform at the state level, even in states like Wyoming, which of course have a significant economic incentive to keep the coal industry going and vibrant,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, during Thursday’s call.

Anderson also wants to see increased regulatory oversight of mine reclamation, more rigorous economic review of companies’ plans and increased public participation in the decision-making process. Those changes, however, may lack the same universal appeal enjoyed by Wyoming’s reclamation law. So she hopes federal policymakers will tighten reclamation standards nationwide and bring every state, including Wyoming, along.

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