U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining

For the first time, the U.S. government established uniform regulations to limit the environmental impact of strip mining and set standards for leasing and land reclamation. The controversial Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act has drawn criticism from mine operators, who view the law as overly restrictive and costly, and from environmentalists, who compain that reclamation and oversight have been insufficient.

Summary of Event

On August 3, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the long-awaited Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which was the first federal law to regulate strip mining nationwide. The SMCRA requires that mine operators take steps to minimize the environmental impacts of strip mining and that they restore strip-mined land to a condition capable of supporting the same uses the land could support prior to mining. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977)
Strip mining, regulation
Environmental policy, U.S.;strip mining
[kw]U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining (Aug. 3, 1977)
[kw]Government Regulates Strip Mining, U.S. (Aug. 3, 1977)
[kw]Regulates Strip Mining, U.S. Government (Aug. 3, 1977)
[kw]Strip Mining, U.S. Government Regulates (Aug. 3, 1977)
[kw]Mining, U.S. Government Regulates Strip (Aug. 3, 1977)
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977)
Strip mining, regulation
Environmental policy, U.S.;strip mining
[g]North America;Aug. 3, 1977: U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining[02900]
[g]United States;Aug. 3, 1977: U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining[02900]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 3, 1977: U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining[02900]
[c]Environmental issues;Aug. 3, 1977: U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining[02900]
[c]Natural resources;Aug. 3, 1977: U.S. Government Regulates Strip Mining[02900]
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy
Caudill, Harry M.
Dunlap, Louise C.
Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;environmental policy
Udall, Morris K.

Efforts to regulate surface mining and its environmental damage on a national level have a long and sometimes tumultuous history. In 1940, Representative Everett Dirksen Dirksen, Everett of Illinois introduced in the Congress the first bill calling for federal regulation of surface coal mining. His efforts failed. Over the next thirty years, many similar efforts were equally unsuccessful—most bills never progressed out of committee. Then, in the early 1970’s, responding to the growing wave of grassroots concern over declining environmental quality, Congress began to address the environmental effects of surface mining with renewed commitment. By then, surface mining had disturbed more than four million acres of land in the United States, and strip mining was spreading into the environmentally sensitive semiarid regions of the West.

Over a six-year period, considerable and often heated debate raged over the merits of federal regulation of surface mining. Proponents of regulation argued that the problem was national in scope and called for uniform regulation; they characterized existing state regulations as generally weak and ineffective. Opponents, chiefly coal companies, industry trade groups, and electric utilities, viewed strip mining as a local problem. They argued that uniform federal regulations were inappropriate because mining takes place in diverse terrains and climates. They urged that individual states be allowed to continue as the prime regulators of mining within their borders.

The Rabbit Creek strip mine in Nevada. Strip mining, although efficient, causes massive damage to the environment. In 1977, the U.S. government enacted legislation that regulates strip mining operations.

(U.S. Geological Survey)

In spite of considerable congressional support for the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, President Gerald R. Ford twice vetoed the bill, in 1974 and 1975. The second time, Ford cited as justification for his action his belief that the SMCRA would cut coal production, increase the nation’s dependence on foreign sources of energy, raise consumer prices, and add to unemployment. In response to considerable public and congressional support, President Carter fulfilled a campaign promise by signing the SMCRA into law.

The SMCRA primarily addresses strip mining, one of several types of surface mining that entails the complete removal of “overburden” to expose an ore deposit. Overburden consists of any structures, such as buildings or roads, vegetation, soil, sediment, or bedrock that overlie a deposit. Even where underground mining techniques are feasible, mine operators often favor surface mining because it is more efficient: Surface mining allows more complete removal of the deposit. Surface mining typically removes 80 percent to 90 percent of the deposit, whereas subsurface mining may leave behind one-half of the deposit. Furthermore, surface mining is typically safer than subsurface mining; the probability of an explosion or a mine collapse is lower in a surface mine. The surface-mining method is generally less expensive (as long as environmental costs are excluded).

Compared with other surface-mining techniques, such as quarries, open pits, and dredging, strip mining more severely disrupts the landscape primarily because it disturbs a much larger land area for the amount of resource recovered. In strip mining, huge power shovels or stripping wheels chew up the land in scoops of ten to one hundred cubic meters. Strip mining is used primarily to extract coal from seams averaging 2 meters thick and occurring within about 45 meters of the land surface. The technique is also used to recover phosphate and gypsum.

Two methods of strip mining, area and contour, are used, depending on the local topography. Area strip mining is used where the terrain is nearly flat or gently rolling (for example, coal mining in Illinois, phosphate mining in Florida). Heavy equipment strips away overburden, exposing the deposit in parallel trenches. Then shovels or front-end loaders remove the deposit. When extraction from one trench is complete, that trench is filled with the overburden from an adjacent trench. Unless regraded, the strip-mined landscape develops a washboard appearance that is prone to considerable wind and water erosion.

In hilly or mountainous terrains, such as the Appalachian Mountains, contour strip mining extracts near-surface coal seams. A bulldozer cuts a shelf into the flanks of a hill or mountain, exposing a coal seam that is extracted by a power shovel. One shelf is cut for each coal seam, and the overburden is dumped downslope to the shelf below. Unless regraded, contour strip mining leaves behind ugly, snakelike scars on the mountain slopes. Where the overburden is too thick to be mined economically, augers—huge drills up to 2 meters in diameter—bore horizontally as much as 60 meters into the coal seam. Coal backs out of the auger hole like wood shavings on a drill bit. Coal mining

A major environmental problem associated with mining is disposal of waste (spoils), that is, the overburden plus tailings, the residue of ore processing. Surface mining accounts for nearly 99 percent of all mine waste, and coal mining produces more waste than any other type of mining. Most mine waste is left at the mine site. Spoils lack nutrients and tend to be excessively stony, so they inhibit the establishment of most types of potentially stabilizing vegetation. Hence severe erosion and slides are a constant hazard. In Wales, on October 21, 1966, a 125-meter pile of rain-soaked coal mine waste abruptly slid down into the village of Aberfan, smashing buildings and a schoolhouse. Most of the 144 fatalities were children.

Mining can seriously degrade water quality. In 1990, the U.S. Bureau of Mines reported that the nation’s mining activity was adversely affecting water quality along more than 19,300 kilometers of rivers and streams. Perhaps a third of surface water contamination is a result of acid mine drainage (AMD). Rainwater and snowmelt seeping through mines, spoils, or auger holes come in contact with sulfur minerals, producing sulfuric acid. Acid runoff lowers the pH of waterways and threatens aquatic life. In the East, coal mining is the principal source of AMD; in the West, the primary source of AMD is metallic ore mining.

In addition to acid mine drainage, mines and spoils may be sources of heavy metals and other sediments. Heavy metals, such as cadmium and mercury, occur as elements and thus do not degrade in the environment. They may accumulate in food webs and are potentially toxic to organisms. Sediments washed into rivers, streams, and lakes make water turbid and decrease photosynthesis and biological productivity. Furthermore, dust blown from mine dumps reduces air quality.

The primary objective of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is to protect society and the environment from the adverse impacts of surface mining, especially strip mining, by mandating land reclamation. Land reclamation encompasses strategies that foster ecological succession on land disturbed by mining. Strategies include contouring mine spoils and overburden to minimize erosion, applying topsoil and fertilizer, and planting and maintaining indigenous vegetation. The SMCRA requires mine operators to demonstrate that they can reclaim the land and prohibits mining where reclamation is not feasible.

Mine operators must store soil layers so as to minimize contamination and erosion. After mining, the land is regraded to its approximate original contours, and the topsoil is replaced and reseeded. Any toxic waste must be buried under the plant-root zone. Where the mined land was originally agricultural, the land must be restored to at least its original productivity. The law requires landowners to give written consent for mining in those places where someone other than the landowner holds the mineral rights. Also, drainage waters must be impounded and treated. Finally, the law encourages miners to employ the haul-back method of contour strip mining, thereby lessening the danger of landslides and reducing the amount of land disturbed. With that technique, trucks haul overburden back along the contour shelf to fill in and restore the original slope of the hill or mountain instead of dumping the overburden downslope.


Implementation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is a cooperative state and federal venture. The individual states are responsible for the development, issuance, and enforcement of surface-mining regulations. States must comply with federal standards and may not weaken federal regulations in adapting them to their unique environmental conditions. The states are authorized to approve mining plans, issue mining permits, inspect mines, and punish violators. The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) within the U.S. Department of the Interior has oversight responsibility in ensuring that state implementation plans adhere to the requirements of the SMCRA. OSM personnel respond to citizen complaints and spot-check mines to evaluate state inspection and enforcement programs.

Successful implementation of the provisions of the SMCRA depends on an understanding of both the potential and the limitations of land reclamation. Land reclamation is most effective and economical when it is an integral part of the mining operation rather than a remedial action after mining is complete. The specific reclamation strategy must be tailored to the physical and chemical properties of the spoils, the type of ecosystem that is affected, and climate. For example, the amount and reliability of rainfall affect seed germination and establishment of seedlings.

Land reclamation projects have been under way for decades in the coal fields of the eastern and central United States. Prior to the SMCRA, however, reclamation—if done at all—generally downgraded the capabilities of agricultural lands, converting cropland to pasture, for example. The SMCRA regulations seek to end this practice. For mine operators, however, restoring prime farmland to premining productivity has been a formidable and sometimes impossible challenge. Economically recoverable surface-minable coal underlies less than 1 percent of the nation’s prime farmland, but in some midwestern counties, this figure approaches 20 percent.

Some success has been reported in restoring productivity of crops such as wheat and hay that do not require high-quality soils. This is not the case for crops such as corn that demand high-quality soils. The basic problem stems from compaction of soil that occurs as soil horizons are excavated, stored, and replaced. Compacted soils do not transmit water or air as readily and restrict root development. Crops grown on compacted soils are more vulnerable to drought or excessive rainfall, so yields typically fall short of objectives.

Compounding the problem of soil compaction in the western coal fields is the climate, much of which is semiarid. Rainfall is particularly unreliable in rangeland, making the reestablishment of grasses difficult. Also, rehabilitation of mine spoils in the mountainous West is highly problematic because revegetation proceeds more slowly at high elevations where temperatures are lower, the growing season is shorter, soils are shallower, and fewer plant species can tolerate the harsh environmental conditions. Furthermore, development of appropriate reclamation methods in the West is limited by a lack of field research and very little experience with full-restoration reclamation.

On the positive side, the SMCRA has helped to curb acid mine drainage. The U.S. Bureau of Mines reports that since the 1970’s, adverse impacts from AMD have declined by nearly one-third. This reduction is primarily a consequence of chemical neutralization of high-sulfur overburden and mine water prior to discharge, reclamation of some abandoned mines, impoundment of drainage water in collection basins, and sealing of auger holes with nonacidic overburden. Acid mine drainage is primarily a problem arising from mines that were closed and abandoned prior to modern regulations.

Since its enactment, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act has been controversial. Its original objective—to strike a balance between protecting the environment and cropland and supplying needed coal—has often proved elusive. Most mine operators view provisions of the 1977 law as too restrictive and the compliance costs as too burdensome. High regulatory costs coupled with an unfavorable economy have forced both responsible and irresponsible coal mining companies out of business. Environmentalists, however, complain that reclamation has been too slow and that the OSM’s oversight responsibilities are thwarted because the agency is understaffed and underfunded. Environmentalists argue that there is insufficient reclamation research and that there are too many exemptions to the prime farmland rule. These controversies continue to be played out in public hearings as well as in the courts. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977)
Strip mining, regulation
Environmental policy, U.S.;strip mining

Further Reading

  • Caudill, Harry M. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Classic description of the economic and social conditions on the Appalachian Plateau, where a history of unregulated coal mining has taken a heavy toll.
  • Chilson, Peter. “Coal Miners’ Story.” Audubon 96 (March-April, 1994): 51-62, 118-119. Discusses the economic impact of the closing of Pennsylvania coal mines ostensibly brought on by the high cost of compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Desai, Uday, ed. Moving the Earth: Cooperative Federalism and Implementation of the Surface Mining Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Analyzes the implementation of the SMCRA through the experiences of thirteen different specialists.
  • Plotkin, Steven E. “From Surface Mine to Cropland.” Environment 28 (January/February, 1986): 17-43. Reviews problems arising from efforts to restore productivity following strip mining of prime farmland.
  • Reece, Erik. Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness—Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. The Kentucky-born author assesses the devastating effects of strip mining on the environment as well as on rural residents of Appalachia.
  • Vietor, Richard H. K. Environmental Politics and the Coal Coalition. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1980. Focuses on the environmental impact of the nation’s dependence on coal. Includes a thorough review of political events leading up to final passage of the SMCRA.

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