By Kristine Galloway
Under the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s leadership, more than 100,000 acres of mine lands across the state are being reclaimed. Nearly 20,000 acres are fully reclaimed.
The DEQ works with mining companies to ensure lands they’ve finished mining are returned to a quality that is beneficial to the state of Wyoming. In fact, reclaimed land often is enhanced and offers increased benefits to grazing for livestock and wildlife.
State and federal laws require all inactive mine lands to be reclaimed – a process that begins while the mines still are active and continues more than 10 years after the mines close.
Kyle Wendtland, DEQ’s Land Quality Division administrator, said mine land reclamation begins shortly after mining begins at any site.
In the case of coal mines, the miners remove the top soil and the overburden (all the material beneath the top soil but above the coal) and place it in piles called spoils. The miners can then mine that first coal seam.
As the mining shifts, and each cut uncovers new coal, the spoils are used to refill each previous mined area and begin the process of reclamation, Wendtland explained.
“They are reclaiming progressively as the mine moves,” he said.
To date, there are 184,488 acres of land disturbed by mining operations in Wyoming. Of those, 106,964 acres are in some phase of reclamation. A little more than 50,000 acres are reclaimed to the point that ranchers can use the land for grazing.
(32-year Google Timelapse of a mine near Wright, Wyoming)
Wendtland said a great example of mine reclamation is the Dave Johnston mine near Glenrock. He explained that the mine stopped operating around 2000 and earned its termination of jurisdiction around 2015.
A termination of jurisdiction is awarded only when a mine is fully reclaimed – including seeding of native plant populations – and remains in good grazing condition for 10 years, Wendtland said.
The Dave Johnston mine land is now home to grazing lands and the Glenrock and Rolling Hills wind farm.
Wendtland said reclaimed mine lands usually are converted into grazing land for livestock and wildlife.
He explained that the reclaimed area will be similar to the land before mining started, but will not be identical to its original condition, because the soil expands when it’s loosened and because of the extraction of the minerals, such as coal.
“If you remove 100 feet of coal, that lowers the surface 100 feet,” he said.
Mining companies use tractors with ground radar and GPS to map the land. They can then design a plan for the reclaimed land through computer programs, Wendtland explained.
Operators then use machinery equipped with screens that show them exactly where to move dirt to create new hills and valleys across the reclaimed land.
The mining companies also plan which native plants, including sagebrush, to seed in the area and where among the hills and valleys those seeds should be placed.
Wendtland said various plants thrive better depending upon which direction they face and what sort of ground they are planted in – just like house plants that might prefer sun or shade.
The companies also will create water tanks or repurpose mining wells to serve livestock grazing and ensure the cattle will graze uniformly across the land, rather than in just one area, he explained.
Reclamation is paid for by the mining companies, but the DEQ requires all large projects to provide bonds equivalent to the cost of third-party reclamation.
In the event that a company files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy – liquidation of the company – the DEQ would collect those bonds and award a contract for a third-party company to complete the reclamation.
The DEQ recently spent more than four years revising the bonding rules, and the new rules were signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon on May 3. The DEQ accepted many public comments (including from industry representatives and environmental interest groups) during the process.
The new rules ensure mine reclamation is financially safer for Wyoming taxpayers by creating more stable rules to which the companies must adhere.
Kimber Wichmann, DEQ’s chief economic officer, explained that the DEQ began revising the rules when some mining operations began filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – an effort to restructure or refinance a company – around 2015.
The new rules do not allow any company to be 100% self-bonded. Wichmann explained that companies could be allowed to be self-bonded up to 75%, but only companies with the highest credit rating are allowed to self-bond at that level.
Muthu Kuchanur, natural resources program manager within the Land Quality Division, said the new bonding regulations and guidelines the DEQ is now using are absolutely creating bonding circumstances that are better for the state of Wyoming and safer for the state’s taxpayers.