Coal From Now On

Reclaimed Coal Mine

North Dakota

barren hill with a several antelope

Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Interior, Office of Surface Mining

Antelope graze on a reclaimed coal mine site in North Dakota.

Coal mining is a messy business, especially when done in shafts deep underground. Using explosives and giant shovels, strip mining removes the "overburden" (earth, and the vegetation it supports, resting on top of coal deposits) and then the coal itself, creating pits that can lead to mudslides, flooding, and soil erosion of surrounding unmined lands. However, a new technology called auger mining, digs beneath the surface to remove coal without leaving visible traces.

Since 1977, the federal Surface Mining Law has provided funding for mine reclamation. Fees collected from mining companies (35 cents per ton of surface coal, 15 cents per ton of underground coal, and 10¢ per ton of lignite) go into the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund along with fines, other payments, and interest earned from the fund's principal. Beginning on January 1, 1978, in its first 23 and a half years, the fund reached nearly $6.5 billion.

Half of that money is turned over to states and Indian nations that have federally-approved reclamation programs. The other half supports Federal Reclamation Program administration, emergency and other special projects, additional state reclamation programs, and the Abandoned Mine Land Fund. In federal fiscal year 2002, that fund held $910.7 million, its highest state shares being $339.4 million for Wyoming, $113.5 million for Kentucky, $111.5 million for West Virginia, $53.2 million for Pennsylvania, and $41.2 for Montana.1

But sometimes replacing the surface to a viable natural state is not enough. Sacred surface features such as springs and ancient pictographs cannot be recreated. The Northern Cheyenne people, whose Montana reservation overlies a portion of the Fort Union Formation, sued the federal government three times during the 1960s and 1970s, seeking to prevent building of 40 planned coal-fired electricity generating plants on or near the reservation. Private corporations had leased half of reservation lands for coal extraction, but royalties paid to owners varied from 15 cents to $1 per ton. The Cheyenne wanted to regain control over their own land, and succeeded in 1980 when the government voided the corporations' leases.

Elsewhere in the United States, mining and air-pollution programs now work to mitigate other problems caused by coal mining, such as polluted water leaking from underground mines, and air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Exhaust from such plants now passes through "scrubbers" in the smokestacks, which remove much of the sulfur dioxide. Other gadgets remove much of the fine "fly ash," which then is used in fertilizer, and in concrete to improve how well it can be shaped.

Thirty-six of the 50 states have coal deposits, and the United States produced more than 1.12 billion tons of coal in 2001 (exporting 49 million tons). Today, however, about seven-tenths of the nation's coal comes from surface mines.2 The U.S. ties with Russia and China as first-place coal producer in the world.

West Virginia's soft coal has been mined underground for more than a century, and plenty is left; this state also leads the nation in soft-coal production, with Kentucky coming in second. Other primary producers include Pennsylvania with both bituminous coal and the US's only anthracite mines, and Ohio with surface and underground coal. Wyoming, with soft coal under 40% of its land, is also a major producer. Its northeastern corner is part of the Fort Union formation, which extends under northeastern Wyoming, eastern Montana, western North and South Dakota, and two Canadian provinces.

At the usage rate of the beginning of the 21st century, world-wide accessible coal deposits (as deep as 1,500 feet)4 are estimated to last for 250 to 300 years. More coal rests so many thousands of feet below earth's surface that it can be reached only with the invention of new technology—which is, after all, the way the coal story always has gone.

Meanwhile, some of the plant specimens Lewis collected, which are now at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, are serving a purpose no one could have imagined until a few years ago. Analysis of selected specimens has provided scientists a baseline for measuring the amount of carbon dioxide that coal and other fossil fuels have imparted to earth's atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

On the other hand, the coal beds Lewis and Clark discovered are now the sources of another, cheaper fuel with its own attendant evils. Methane contained in the Fort Union Formation, as well as elsewhere throughout the West, burns much cleaner than lignite, but the process of extraction brings up salt water that cannot be put back where it came from. Dumped on the surface, it sterilizes previously productive ranchlands near methane wells, and then pollutes sweet-water aquifers.

1. Funding figures from United States Department of Interior, Office of Surface Mining, (accessed 02/02).

2. Production statistics from the National Mining Association,

3. Gail Stewart, Coal Miners (Crestwood House, 1988).

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.