GILLETTE — At first glance, China and Wyoming don’t have much in common.
There are the obvious cultural differences and the former has a population of about 1.4 billion people, or 2,400 times Wyoming’s population. And while property rights are a big deal in this state, in China, the state owns most of the land.
China also is trying to set up regulations for an issue very familiar to Wyoming — reclamation — and it has asked a Gillette woman to help.
Last week, Brenda Schladweiler, owner of Gillette-based BKS Environmental Associates, traveled to China to talk about coal mine reclamation with the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources at the China University of Mining and Technology.
The ministry is a cross between the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture, Schladweiler said. It was one of many that the Chinese government formed this spring when it went through a restructuring process to consolidate a number of agencies.
It’s trying to develop its own regulations and is soliciting information from a number of countries, Schladweiler said. She happened to be the person selected to represent Wyoming and the United States.
Schladweiler, who has worked in the reclamation industry for 41 years, said there might not be a better place to start than Wyoming, because the Cowboy State has been ahead of the curve when it comes to reclamation. She cited the Wyoming Open Cut Mining Law of 1969 and the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act of 1973 as examples.
The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, which was passed in 1977, transferred oversight to states whose regulatory standards met or exceeded federal standards. Wyoming accomplished that in three years.
It was her second trip to China. As the past national president of the American Society for Mining and Reclamation, she traveled there in 2017 to attend a reclamation symposium in Xi’an, a city of 12 million people.
Schladweiler said she toured coal mining operations in the eastern part of China, which, similar to the eastern U.S., were mostly underground mines. There, their biggest reclamation problem is subsidence, where the ground is gradually sinking or caving in.
They also have gob piles, which are made up of loose waste material and packed in layers to support the roof of a mine.
“They’d start smoldering and produce a lot of smoke in the valley. Some had methane as well so they could be an explosion issue,” she said.
The China Schladweiler saw was very westernized, especially in the city, which had American staples such as Starbucks and KFC. Many of the people she spoke with knew English.
“It makes you somewhat embarrassed that you don’t know more Chinese,” she said, adding that she only knows a few basic phrases.
Although it was difficult to know if she was pronouncing words correctly, the Chinese appreciated that she was trying and were very accommodating.
“I’ve been told I am their guest, it’s very similar to Wyoming hospitality,” she said. “If they invite you, they take care of you.”
They fed her well. She “never saw the same food twice” and tried new food such as sea cucumber, which she admitted she did not like.
Last fall, she walked through Olympic Park in Beijing and saw “trees that look like aspen, as gold as in the Big Horns.”
Many wanted to take their pictures with her, which she said made her feel “like a rock star.”
She said although she didn’t know how the Chinese public perceives coal, “my guess would be that cheap electricity is a blessing to them.”
She traveled China by high-speed rail and passed by “a lot of country that you know doesn’t have cheap, reliable, sustainable electricity. We’re pretty spoiled in this country that we go to that light switch and flip that thing on and we expect the lights to come on.”
The biggest difference, she said, was space. In China, “space is a commodity,” a far cry from Wyoming where “it takes to hours to get anywhere.”
Property rights are important to Wyoming residents, but there is essentially no private land in China, Schladweiler said. It’s all owned by the government, which leases the land to farmers.
In Wyoming, there are ranches that span thousands of acres and four or five generations.
“We think, ‘Wow, that’s really good,’” Schladweiler said.
In China, there are farms that are only a few thousand square feet, but they’ve been kept in the same family for 16 generations.
“It was very eye-opening to see they have 5,000 years of culture there, and we’re not used to that,” she said.
Schladweiler said she expected to see a lot of rice farms but was amazed at how much corn is grown there. And because land is at a premium, farmers grow corn on “any flat piece of ground that has any kind of soil on it.”
They dry corn grain on the sides of roads.
One rural family stuck out to her. Nicknamed the “Happy Family,” the farming family was one of many that helped with reclamation efforts. They would bring in sediment from their irrigation canals, which would be used along with native topsoil to re-establish farmland.
Schladweiler said she was honored and humbled to represent Wyoming, considering “there are other people in this county that … could do a good job as well.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources also is listening to presentations from people in other countries and gathering information to come up with its own policies.
Schladweiler said it could be years before anything comes out of this, but it’ll be interesting to see how it works out.
“You would hope it would be by regions,” she said. “You don’t want a one-size-fits-all regulation.”
If a blanket set of regulations doesn’t work for the United States, it certainly won’t work for China either, she said.