Wyoming’s coal mining legacy dates back to the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1897.1 The state is home to some of the largest coal mines on earth, including the top eight active U.S. mines. Combined, Wyoming mines account for 41% of coal production in the U.S., about the same as the next seven largest coal producing states combined.
The two largest mines in Wyoming alone, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine and the Black Thunder Mine, account for 21% of U.S. production. With high production comes thousands of acres in active mining status, as well as thousands of disturbed acres that are no longer productive. As coal in one area is mined out, mines move and expand to remain economically viable, increasing the area that needs to be reclaimed.
Once land is mined out, federal and state laws require it to be reclaimed to its former productive status supporting other uses. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) mandates that reclamation be completed “as contemporaneously as practicable” with production and the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act (WEQA) states that mining reclamation plans are to have a “time schedule encouraging the earliest possible reclamation program.” Despite these legal requirements, Wyoming mines must overcome many hurdles to achieve full reclamation. Arid landscapes make it difficult to re-establish native vegetation, and it is not simple to return land contours to approximate pre-mining conditions after hundreds of feet of overburden and coal have been removed. Still, coal mines in Wyoming are proud of their reclamation efforts and have proven that high quality reclamation IS possible, at least in small amounts. But lack of adequate financial assurances that reclamation will be completed and regulatory features that reward delaying reclamation remain problematic. This report explores the current status of reclamation in Wyoming, what can be done to improve and accelerate reclamation, and related job creation potential.
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