Before a company can begin mining, it must go through the long and rigorous process of obtaining a mining permit. The permit application process begins by collecting baseline data to adequately characterize the pre-mine environmental condition of the permit area. This work includes surveys of cultural and historical resources, soils, vegetation, wildlife, assessment of surface and groundwater hydrology, climatology, and wetlands. In conducting this work, the company collects geologic data to define and model the soil and rock structures and coal that will be mined. The company develops mining and reclamation plans using this geologic data and incorporating elements of the environmental data.
The mining and reclamation plan incorporates the provisions of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), state programs, and the complementary environmental programs that affect coal mining. The permit application also includes documents defining ownership and agreements pertaining to coal, minerals, oil and gas, water rights, rights of way and surface land. Some mine permits take over a year to prepare, depending on the size and complexity of the mine.
Once a permit application has been prepared and submitted to the regulatory agency, it goes through a completeness review and technical review. Proposed permits also undergo a public notice and comment period. Some mine permits may take several years or even longer to be issued. Regulatory authorities have considerable discretion in the timing of the permit issuance and the public and other agencies have the right to comment on and otherwise engage in the permitting process, including through intervention in the courts.
Before a mine permit is issued, a mine operator must submit a bond or otherwise secure the performance of reclamation obligations. The Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program, which is part of SMCRA, requires a fee on all coal produced. The proceeds are used to reclaim mine lands closed prior to 1977, when SMCRA came into effect. The current fee is $0.315 per ton on surface-mined coal and $0.135 on deep-mined coal from 2008 to 2012, with reductions to $0.28 per ton on surface-mined coal and $0.12 per ton on deep-mined coal from 2013 to 2021.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) is the primary environmental law governing coal mining and reclamation activities. This law requires that all land disturbances related to coal mining should be minimized while maximizing coal recovery.
There are a number of federal and state agencies responsible for regulating the industry. Taking West Virginia as an example, these include:
U.S. Office of Surface Mining
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP)
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR)
West Virginia Division of Culture and History (WEDCH)
In addition to the SMCRA, mining operations must abide by a number of other federal environmental laws including:
1965: Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA)
1969: National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
1970: Clean Air Act (CAA)
1972: Clean Water Act (CWA)
1973: Endangered Species Act (ESA)
1974: Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
1976: Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
1976: Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
1980: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)