A study of 15 western strip mines has found none that has been able to reclaim fully the land ravaged in the hunt for energy, even with a decade of trying.
The six-state survey released yesterday by Inform Inc., an independent New York-based research organization, found that several mine owners, despite "impressive" efforts were unable to reverse serious erosion and groundwater disturbances, while others could not get replanted vegetation to grow.
The study covered mines in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Together, they produced more than 84 million tons of coal in 1978, or two-thirds of those states' output.
Since operations began, they have moved earth in 35,000 acres, or more than 55 square miles, most of it grazing land for cattle and sheep. But some of the mining areas, the study said, have climate and soil "that may virtually preclude successful reclamation."
"Nevertheless, mining continues in every conceivable area, combining some of the worst soil, driest conditions and most delicate ecosystems in the nation," wrote author Daniel Wiener.
Costs of reclamation are hard to figure, the report continued, since accounting varies from company to company and each site is different. Estimates ranged from $200 to $18,000 per acre. Perhaps 70 percent of the cost is for earthmoving, "yet it is unclear which earthmoving costs are truly attributable only to reclamation and which are necessary expenses for coal production," the study said.
The report, entitled "Reclaiming the West," singled out the Energy Fuels Co. operation in northwest Colorado for praise, saying it met two-thirds of Inform's criteria for success at reclamation on its 2,500-acre site.
The company has reseeded 55 percent of the land it disturbed and has managed to control most erosion, the report continued.On the other hand, the Knife River Co.'s 30-year-old Gascoyne Mine in North Dakota has had only 4 percent of its land reseeded in what the study called a "superficial approach to reclamation," the worst case cited.
Wiener cited three criteria for successful reclamation: erosion resistance, fully self-regenerating plant life and productivity equal to or greater than before the land was stripped.
"None of the 15 mines in Inform's sample has met all three of these criteria," he wrote.
Inform calls itself a corporate-responsibility research group, and has studied land use, copper smelting, fluidized-bed coal-burning technology and worker safety in a number of areas. It is funded by contributions and grants from foundations, corporations and government agencies.