A bill designed to reduce the environmental damage from the strip mining of coal by federally regulating strip mining easily passed the House yesterday by a 241-to-64 vote.
It was the third time in five years that such a bill had passed the House. A 1972 version failed to pass the Senate and a 1975 measure adopted by both houses was vetoed by President Ford. This time it seems almost certain a bill will become law, since President Carter has strongly endorsed it. The Senate Energy Committee is currently marking up that body's version of the bill.
The bill would require miners of coal that is close to the surface to return the land to its approximate original countour, set aside certain lands, such as in national parks in the West, as unsuitable for stripping, and put a tax on the coal produced to reclaim strip mined land.
President Carter's energy package requires a 65 per cent increase in the production of coal, up to 1 billion tons a year by 1985. His proposal to mandate that utilities and industry switch to coal as a fuel led opponents of the bill to argue that the legislation contradicted those goals by taking land out of production and causing both the cost and difficulty of getting the coal to increase.
Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.) cited a report commissioned for the Environmental Production Agency and Council and Environmental Quality which said, according to Bauman, the bill "could permanently remove from coal production anywhere from 800 million tons to 8.5 billion tons of coal." Bauman said the bill would increase utility bills from $34 to $80 a year because of increased cost of coal.
But supporters of the bill argued that a boom in coal mining is inevitable and has already begun, particularly in the West, where there are rich deposits of low-sulfur, relatively clean-burning coal very close to the surface. Rep. Teno Roncalio (D-Wyo.) said two mining operations in his state are already producing 1 million tons of coal a year, and won't stop because of this bill.
Interior Committee Chairman Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said the issue was protecting the mined land "so we can use it 10 years from now or 1,000 years from now."
Most Western are members supported the bill, fearing that once coal operators take the coal and leave, the expected boom could turn into a bust, with formerly productive ranch and agricultural lands left unusable without federally controlled reclamation and protection.
Most of the fight had gone out of the debate on the bill because coal mine operators, recognizing the inevitability of the bill becoming law, had worked with the Interior Committee to get some concessions in simplying the regulations and making it easier to comply with the standards.
However, environmentalists also consider the bill stronger because it would protect the rights of surface owners of land overlying federally owned coal to prevent mining, and would increase protection for agricultural lands and mountaintop lands.
One amendment adopted on the floor made the bill even stronger by tightening the prohibition on mining alluvial valley floors, those lowlands in the West where water, like coal, is just below the surface.