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More than a third of western US coal mine land left unreclaimed, report says

More than one-third of all land mined for coal in the western U.S. remains unreclaimed after nearly 50 years of mining, according to a new report from a regional network of western conservation organizations.

There are about 150,000 unreclaimed acres, or 234 square miles, in the West, according to a report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC. That land is either still being mined or is classified as long-term reclamation and mining facilities, such as haul roads and other areas that coal producers deem necessary until the end of the mine life.

The report noted the industry's decline and projections of its continuing demise as demand for the fuel wanes. Federal and state governments need to be more active to ensure producers clean up their mines rather than sticking taxpayers with the bill, which may involve policy changes, according to the report.

Among its recommendations, the report said policymakers should require companies to provide detailed mine closure plans that include the expected timing and resources the producer has available to put toward the costs of shutting down the operation. The council also suggested that policymakers require companies to create sinking funds to help pay for reclamation obligations and eliminate self-bonding at state and federal levels.

Additionally, the WORC recommended that regulators reject and demand the replacement of surety bonds written by inadequately capitalized companies as well as develop detailed bond forfeiture contingency plans and emergency response plans.

Part of the problem is that much of the coal mine is left unreclaimed up until the operation shuts down, requiring the producers to spend a significant amount of money restoring the land just as its revenue stream dries up, according to WORC.

"At some point, reclamation costs will overwhelm cash generated from dwindling coal sales. With rising costs and declining revenues, coal companies will likely again file for bankruptcy sometime during this process," the report said.

Federal regulators are not required to measure the category of unreclaimed mine land that could be recovered. The only law that required that data collection was suspended amid pressure from the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to the report.

Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana have the most unreclaimed acres in the West, according to the report. In Wyoming, more than 83,000 acres are still being mined or in long-term facilities, while nearly 25,000 acres have not been reclaimed in North Dakota and more than 17,000 acres are left to reclaim in Montana.

Coal mining methods also contribute to greater reclamation needs as the mine nears the end of its life, WORC said. Operators mine the coal nearest to the surface first and build infrastructure near those locations. As that coal is mined out, workers turn to deeper seams farther from infrastructure, so it is time for the operation to shut down, "it requires reclamation of the largest disturbed area ever existing at that mine," the report said.

WORC pointed out the enormous reclamation obligations weighing on mines formerly owned by Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Contura Energy Inc. before they were sold during the companies' bankruptcy reorganization proceedings. Those massive Powder River Basin mines, which have the highest proportion of unreclaimed acres among the top western producers, were transferred amid a strong demand decline to companies that have "limited operational history," according to the report.

There also is a lack of new capital in the mining industry that, coupled with declining western coal demand, "is hastening an inevitable reckoning," the report said. It recommended that regulators force producers to complete reclamation work before the mine closes and "ensure that only the most secure, liquid, and reliable bond instruments are used to guarantee reclamation."

"To best mitigate these risks, mining regulators must begin to require mine operators to accelerate reclamation by adequately staffing and resourcing reclamation crews and must more vigorously urge and enforce contemporaneous reclamation standards," WORC said.