The Senate yesterday neared passage of the strip-mining bill, which would compel coal operators to restore torn-up coal lands after taking out the mineral wealth.
Sponsors, led by Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.), said strip mining not only leaves esthetically ugly gashes in the earth but can cause erosion, floods, landslides and pollution. The bill, for the first time, would set up a nation-wide system to require restoration of vegetation and natural land contours.
Critics said the bill could raise coal costs and put some needed coal deposits out of bounds.
In the day's most important amendment, the Senate voted 44 to 32 to delete from the bill a requirement that a farmer or rancher owning the surface of land must give his consent before coal companies and work any federally owned coal deposit leased before the surface.
Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), said the consent provision allowed farmers to charge outrageous prices for their consent and thus jack up the cost of coal. Under his amendment, land-owners would have to let the coal be worked and would receive compensation under a special formula.
A similar amendment had been defeated earlier by a huge margin, but Abraham a Ribicoff (D-Conn.), one of those who witched, said "we didn't understand what it was all about" earlier - until Bumpers and Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis) went to work. Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyo), angrily said the Bumpers amendment was like telling farmers out West. "The hell with you." Deletion of the consent provision could causa considerable trouble in conference with The House, which has consent language in its version.
In a key vote, the Senate defeated, 45 to 37, an administration-backed amendment by Gary W. HArt (D-Colo.) to install a tougher. House-passed version of a ban on strip mining in alluvial valleys of the West - valley floors with surface or underground water - which are the center of major agricultural and ranching areas in arid areas west and harm farming and ranching.
The House version bans strip mining in alluvial valleys, but exempts strippers who were already mining in 1976 or had received a state permit to do so by Jan. 4 of this year. The Senate version bans stripping in alluvial valleys only if it adversely affects farming and ranching, and also adds a new exemption for any operator who has made substantial financial arrangements to start stripping.
A Senate loophole, exempting [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] operators with under 200,000 [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] annual production from most [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] for 30 [LINES ILLEGIBLES] mines but only 23 per cent of production.
In 1975, President Ford vetoes a strip-mine bill on grounds it might retard needed coal production. President Carter is strongly supporting the present bill.
The heart of the Senate bill is a system of federal standards for regulation of strip mining, applicable in six months to new strip-mine operations. If a state wishes to operate a program of its own, it may opt to do so. Anyone seeking to strip nine coal would have to obtain a permit from either the federal government or the state.
The standards would require the operato to restore the stripped land to a condition capable of supporting whatever functions it was used for, prior to mining.
This would include restoring the approximate contours of the land, revegetating it, leaving no permanent spoil or wastes. "Highwalls" (perpendicular cuts made into the side of a mountain would have to be filled in.
However, some exceptions to these rules are written into the bill, where the top of a mountain has been chopped off, it would need not be restored, but the state or federal government could rezuire that the mountain top be put into condition for some desirable use.
An important amendment by wendell H. Ford (D-DY.) and Walter (Dee) Huddleston (D-KY.) who come from a major coal state, would allow a coal operator to get a "Variance" weakening the highwall restoration requirement, if some agricultural, commercial, residential or industrial or recreational development is planned for the cut-out area.
No strip mining would be allowed within 100 feet of a public road, 300 feet of an occupied building or 500 feet of an underground mine, or areas designated by the government as ecologically fragile, incompatable with state land-use plans or of historic value. Strip permits are also barred in national parks, wildlife refuges, scenic river areas,national wilderness areas, national recreational areas and national forests in the West with no actual forest cover.
An administration-backed amendment by John C. Culver (D-lowa) for bids stripping on high quality "prime farmlands," totalling about 12 million acres mainly in the Midwest, unless it can be shown they can be restored later to their full agricultural productivity.
The bill also ould impose a tax of 35 cents a ton on stripmined coal and 15 cents on deep-mined to help pay for reclamation of land previously ruined by mining but abandoned; provide for inspections, heavy fines and bonds of $10,000 or more as a guarantee that a coal operator will [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] required land restoration.