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Senate Passes Surface Mining Reclamation Act

November 1973

Citation: 3 ELR 10163

Issue: 11

On October 9, 1973, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the Surface Mining Reclamation Act,1 the first federal program of its kind for the regulation of coal surface mining activities and the reclamation of coal-mined lands. According to the terms of the bill, permits must be issued by a state regulatory authority before any person can engage in surface mining within a state. Each applicant for a permit must demonstrate that reclamation of the surface-mined land can be accomplished and the land restored to the "approximate original contour." Spoil piles and highwalls—the ugly, slide-prone cliffs often left after coal is extracted from slopes—are outlawed unless the "overburden" (earth above the coal seam) is insufficient to restore the approximate original contour. Criteria are established for designating certain areas of "critical environmental concern" as unsuitable for surface mining. The Senate bill now goes to the House, which is not expected to act until next year.

The Act provides minimum standards for coal surface mining and reclamation activities to be administered and enforced by the states, and by the Secretary of the Interior on public lands. Federal financial assistance and expertise will be provided to the states to improve regulatory and enforcement programs and to purchase abandoned or unreclaimed ruined areas for purposes of reclamation. Failure by a state to comply with the requirements of the Act will result in federal enforcement of a state program or establishment of a federal program under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior. In addition, the bill authorizes a study of means to improve techniques of deep mining.

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