THE NATIONAL Wildlife Federation has issued a new report on the nonenforcement of the Surface Mining Control Act that Congress passed in 1977. The federation is the largest of the major environmental organizations, and in many ways the least excitable. Its report is not partisan; it carefully points out that some of the more important problems of the Office of Surface Mining originated in the Carter administration. But it says that in the Reagan years the office and enforcement effort were systematically dismantled. The taking-apart was not a subtle operation; there was no covering policy debate of the kind that has characterized civil rights enforcement. Particularly while James Watt was Interior secretary, the administration simply shelved strip-mining law.
The federation report recounts this history:
Much of the effort in the Carter years was spent in writing regulations, many of which finally had to be brokered out in court. Then Mr. Watt took office and moved to rewrite, by his estimate, 91 percent of the rules, mostly to weaken them. Environmental groups took the department back to court. Only this year did the judge in the case finish ordering the department to write the rules a third time. That process has begun, and already there are disputes over it as well.
There is massive evasion of the law, particularly through what is known as the two-acre exemption. This was written to exempt very small operations, but big operators now also use it. They subdivide their operations on paper into many small ones (the "string-of-pearls" approach, one version of this is called), and no one calls them on it. The federation says about 3,000 operators have claimed the two-acre exemption over the years and estimates that three-fourths have done so improperl.
But it is hardly worth an operator's time to evade the law because so little happens to those found to have violated it. About half of the 4,000 cease-and-desist orders issued over the years have been successfully ignored, and some $200 million in fines have gone uncollected, despite explicit court orders to crack down. Little use has been made of a section of the law authorizing penalties against company officials who willfully violate its terms. Federal officials have also deferred excessively to state enforcement schemes, even though it was the weakness of just these schemes that first inspired federal intervention.
The surface mining office lost perhaps half its experienced people when it was "reorganized" in 1981 by Mr. Watt. It has had six directors in seven years. Several officials named to run it, the federation observes, have been "openly hostile" to its purposes. The new Interior secretary, Donald Hodel, has now given somendications he may move to reform the program. He should. Especially under this administration, it has been a monument to lawlessness and greed. The gouged land and the people who live on it need the help.