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.