The Truth About Surface Mining

Mining is one of the oldest and most important contributors to modern societies. All raw materials used to sustain life must either be mined or grown.

Surface Mining, though not without its temporary environmental impact, is vital to development. We must extract those minerals and precious metals that we all depend on for our energy, electronics, transportation, infrastructure, and other aspects of everyday life.

Surface coal mining in the United States is highly regulated at both the federal and state levels to protect the safety of miners and ensure the least environmental impact possible.  Surface coal mining creates high paying jobs, supports local, state, and federal economies, and produces one of the only fully domestic energy resources available to the American people.

Welcome to the Truth About Surface Mining website. We hope it will provide a logical and detailed introduction to coal generally, and to coal that is surface mined specifically, by presenting matters in a useful and factual context.

Coal Mining & The Environment

The health of the environment is always analyzed prior to mining through baseline monitoring and analysis.  Then, based upon proven engineering principles, data, and experience, engineers can prepare mine plans that eliminate and/or minimize the impacts of mining and if impacts are to occur, mine planning must mitigate those impacts.

And, again before any mining begins, the post-mine land use of the land must be addressed in such a way that the operator restore the land to a condition capable of supporting the uses it could support prior to mining, or to “higher or better uses”.

Congress spelled out its intent to balance the impact on the environment and the right of the landowner to recognize the value of the coal resource in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.  Essentially, Congress recognized the principle of multi-use of the land by allowing surface mining practices to occur, but under stringent regulations.  Congress clearly did not intend to outlaw surface mining in 1977 or through SMCRAs implementing regulations.

There’s no doubt that surface mining can take a temporary toll on the land. The removal of trees, shrubs, topsoil, and layers of earth to gain access to the coal underneath necessarily causes ugly scars for a time. This short-term aspect of surface mining is what some environmentalists like to focus on. Modern mining companies, however, take a more long-term view, which is compatible both with the extraction of valuable minerals from the earth and with good environmental stewardship. One of the ways this can be seen is in the careful restoration, and in some cases creation, of viable wildlife habitats in previously mined areas.

Very little in nature happens quickly by human standards. It can take years for large trees to establish themselves, for animals such as deer or wild turkeys to discover and accept new habitats. Restoring a piece of land completely can take years, but the results are worth waiting for. In some cases, the restored land is in better shape than before mining started. Great care is used when planting new trees or restoring stream channels to consider the needs of indigenous flora and fauna. When this is properly done, the land will often return to its natural state and the wildlife that lives there will return. This process can begin quite soon after restoration, and continues for many years.

Tracts of Land for Hunting, Fishing and Trapping

In Virginia, for example, there are vast previously mined areas, which have been restored to their natural state and are now open to sportsmen for hunting, fishing and metal detecting. Thanks to the care taken in restoration, there are now streams with more fish and with greater species diversity than before mining began. In some cases, natural barriers could be removed to allow upstream migration.
Similarly, trees and shrubs encourage the return of deer, turkeys, and grouse, who find refuge in the knee-high grass. Birds soon find nesting areas, and even bears have returned to the area. Within just a few years, it can be almost impossible to see that there was ever any mining activity in the area.
This isn’t so strange, really. Many local miners are from families that have been hunting, fishing and trapping in the area for generations. It’s no surprise that there is a responsibility to see to it that the unspoiled nature and rich wildlife habitats of the region are preserved for future generations.