Ten years ago this month, President Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The law was passed after seven years of struggle involving 183 days of hearings, 11 committee reports, two presidential vetoes and more than 50 recorded votes in the House and Senate.
Prior to the law's passage, lax or nonexistent state regulation of strip mining had polluted more than 10,000 miles of streams, produced 3,000 miles of landslides and created more than 25,000 miles of unreclaimed mountainsides in Appalachia.
The Surface Mining Act was a landmark piece of environmental legislation. But its primary purpose was to protect the people, many of them poor, who live in the coal fields. Strip mining not only pollutes streams and kills fish, it destroys the only sources of water for domestic use of rural communities. Strip mining also causes landslides, destroying the homes below. And it leaves thousands of unreclaimed and unrevegetated mines, making land uninhabitable and unfit for any other use.
Following passage of this act, a new agency was formed in the Interior Department, the Office of Surface Mining. Dedicated and knowledgeable people were hired and strong regulations promulgated. But much of the coal industry and some states bitterly attacked the act and almost every new regulation, saying that the law was unconstitutional and unnecessary and would undercut America's energy needs. They battled to the Supreme Court, where they lost 9 to 0.
As these court battles were raging, the Reagan administration took office and James Watt became secretary of the interior. He made "reform" of the OSM a top priority, reorganizing the agency and causing almost half of all experienced personnel to be dismissed or to leave. He revised 90 percent of the act's regulations, gutting key protections.
For example, he removed protections against the mining of private cemeteries by defining "cemetery" to exclude private burial grounds. He weakened regulations to allow mining in national parks, and he removed all federal protections for land and homes damaged by subsidence. The federal courts threw out these changes, but Watt's actions destabilized the agency and sent its regulatory structure into continuing chaos.
The agency has had six directors or acting directors in the past nine years. Numerous congressional investigations, GAO studies, federal court orders and Interior Department investigations have found the agency directionless, plagued by weak or nonexistent leadership, afflicted with low morale and marked by an unwillingness or inability to enforce the law. Half the federal orders to stop mining until environmental damage was halted were ignored by coal operators, yet the department did nothing. More than $160 million in fines remains uncollected.
The blame, however, does not lie completely with the moribund OSM. Under the act states are given the lead role in regulating strip mining within their borders, with the federal government functioning as an overseer. Some states, such as Montana and Pennsylvania, do a good job. Others, such as Kentucky, do not. The two-acre exemption, for example, which Congress intended to be used by small operators, was used by some of the largest corporations in the world to get around the act's regulations.
Ultimately, the problem in putting the act into effect comes down to coal operators who continue to abuse the land and people of the coal fields. The harm they have caused and continue to cause is massive.
Sad to say, the act has not achieved the hopes we had for it 10 years ago. But it has not failed either. Mining and reclamation practices have improved dramatically in many areas. More land is being reclaimed -- and to a better standard -- than ever before. Moreover, the 10 years of experience has shown the act itself to be sound.
Still, it does little good to tell an individual of Perry County, Ky., who lost a home in December to a landslide, that the act has improved mining practices elsewhere. It does little good to tell the children of a mother who died when an improperly constructed coal-waste dam in Harlan County collapsed that mining practices in other areas have improved. In the last decade a whole new set of problems has been created in the coal fields. At least 6,000 sites have been left unreclaimed since 1977; this works out to one in four of the sites that have been mined.
The act was a beacon of hope to the people of the coal fields. Although their hope has not been fully realized, the struggle is not over. I have not worked for 17 years to abandon the citizens of the coal fields now.
The writer, a Democratic representative from Arizona, is chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affair