StateImpact Oklahoma
4:44 pm
Thu August 15, 2013

Damaged Land Could Once Again Cost Oklahoma Mining Regulator Its Federal Funding

A gate into a silica sand mining operation near Mill Creek in south-central Oklahoma.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Coal mining can cause a lot of damage to the landscape, and the federal government has rules about how mining companies are supposed to treat the land after they’re done with it.

Basically, they’re supposed to return it to approximately what it was like before.

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is charged with making sure the Oklahoma Department of Mines is enforcing that rule. If the Oklahoma mining regulator doesn’t, the feds can step in and take over that role.

new report from the U.S. Department of the Interior claims some Oklahoma mining companies aren’t properly returning land to its original state, and even skirting the regulations entirely.

In addition to poor reclamation practices, the Tulsa Field Office told us about numerous instances of surface mining operators in Oklahoma halting active mining at sites while claiming that they intend to return to mining at a future date. Because these mines are technically still open, they do not have to be reclaimed immediately, in effect allowing operators to circumvent AOC (approximate original contour) requirements.

The report is pretty tough on the Oklahoma Department of Mines, which is understandable since the federal government gives it a $1 million grant each year to enforce federal reclamation rules.

One of the report’s recommendations is for that funding to be cut off.

The Oklahoma mining agency has a history of problems with its federal overseer.

Oklahoma’s enforcement program was first approved in 1981. By 1983, the federal government had taken it over and pulled the funding. The state agency got its authority back in 1987. In 1993, Oklahoma’s enforcement authority came under threat once again. The state agency was eventually put on probation for a year.

Then, in 2010, a federal report listed Oklahoma as “the primary surface mining state with ongoing, unresolved” problems with returning land to its original appearance.

Those problems still haven’t been addressed, and it looks like Oklahoma could lose its authority again. The Department of Mines is weighing in, and calls the report a “surprise.” From The Oklahoman‘s Jay F. Marks:

The state agency contends it did not have any contact with federal investigators before a “surprise” report was issued last week … The agency, which is responsible for ensuring the reclamation of land disturbed by mining operations in Oklahoma, is reviewing the report with help from Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office.