An odd sort of bureaucratic monument adorns a muddy pit at the Energy Fuels Co. strip mine here: a plastic pot inside a kind of cement bathtub. It is a valve, required by law in this arid state, to allow runoff from the mine to water fields downstream when needed. But higher law, in this case federal, forbids draining such polluted water.
The solution to please both sets of bureaucrats: install the valve but promise never to open it.
This western landscape is littered with similar examples -- tokens of the battles between the federal government and the coal mines that are just beginning to open up the West for the second time.
For example, there are golden, rolling fields where once there was a jagged moonscape, part of the largest surface coal mine in the state. Now reclaimed, the land is dotted with shimmering aspens that hide elk and deer, bobcats, grouse and rabbits.
But the grass is alfalfa, bromegrass and fescue -- and it shoudn't be, according to federal law. Even though cattle love this forage, it is not native to a wildlife area, and the law says only native plants may be used in reclaiming strip-mined land. The legally acceptable planting would include more sagebrush, the universal pest of the West.
But if regulation has its absurdities, the regulators have their memories -- memories of the eastern coalfields of the 1940s, where uncontrolled strip mines scalped mountains, clogged streams, polluted drinking water and left a legacy of erosion, landslides and runaway weeds.
There are 215 billion tons of recoverable coal, half the country's total, waiting for the future here in nine western states. About 91 million tons of it ripples across the mountains in seams suitable for strip mining, often 100 feet thick just a few feet below the scrub. Energy for the world is here, the coal men will tell you, if only the government would be "realistic" about the rules to be followed in getting it out.
But three years usually pass between the turning of the first shovelful to get at the coal and the final planting of the last reclamation seeds. In that period, every drop of rain cuts its channel and every breeze takes dust off the piles of earth. In the arguments over where energy realism ends and environmental rape beings, this area is the classic battleground for environmentalists and mine owners. The government's Office of Surface Mining (OSM), trying to strike a balance through regulations, is caught in the middle.
While environmentalists attack the agency for failing to be tough enough, coal men blast it for applying a set of rules they say were meant for eastern mines where coal seams are thin and rainfall heavy, rules that they say just can't work in these flat, arid wastelands.
And for the public, the truth is elusive.
The incoming Republican administration has listened to these complaints, and some advisers are counseling a wholesale dismantling of OSM in order to speed coal development. OSM officials defend the agency, saying that part of its function is to take the heat from local mining companies that would otherwise land on state governments. "Lots of states would like us out of their hair, but basically they want the backup of a strong federal act to get the [environmental protection] enforcement done," said OSM enforcement chief Harriet Marple.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review several cases that hinge on the practicality of various OSM rules. Only three of the 27 coal mining states -- Montana, Texas and Mississippi -- have so far won full OSM approval for their plans to regulate their own mines. Colorado got conditional approval last month, and all state plans must get the go-ahead by next Jan. 3.
Meanwhile, the mines adopt varying approaches. Energy Fuels, which produced 3.4 million tons of coal last year, is one of the industry's best known examples of reclamation success. About 20 miles away, the Sun Coal Co.'s Meadows I mine produces 200,000 tons a year when it is running full tilt, which it isn't these days. There the tale is different.
John Eilts, a rancher who looks the Marlboro man in his straw Stetson and grimy denim jacket, waved angrily over the crumbling bank of last year's gully washout at Meadows I, land the company has leased from him. The spring melt had roared down the mine's hauling road, taking out the embankment and the gas line under it that served the nearby ski resort of Steamboat Springs, he said. "That was the only time I've been able to get anybody's attention to what's going on in this place," he complained.
According to Eilts and assorted regulators, the Meadows mine is a painful example of sloppy erosion control, mislocated ponds, uncited violations and general foot-dragging. It shows, said one official, what a mine can avoid doing if it really wants to. But it also shows how easily the strip mining laws can be misunderstood, even by their defenders.
Daniel Ellison, administrative operations manager at Meadoes, pointed down a ravine at a small beaver pond he said was the subject of an argument between OSM and the mine. The pond served just fine for catching runoff from the mine, he said, and had overflowed only once. That was spring snowmelt and tests had found the runoff chemically acceptable, Ellison said.
But the agency, thinking about high-rainfall eastern states, he said, wanted him to build a sedimentation basin there that would hold 10 acre-feet of water, enough to cover half a mile of highway five feet deep.
"You try to do that on this slope, you'd really have a humongous structure. It would disturb a lot more land," Ellison said. "I knew we've got to do it, but I don't know if we're gaining anything."
OSM inspectors have cited the mine for the pond size, for plugged culverts, washed-out road curves and misplaced piles of topsoil at various times in the past two years. Following the letter of the law, Meadows dumped crumbled red rock in some washed-out gullies, only to have new gullies appear a foot away.
John Eilts is unsatisfied. OSM is not doing its job, he said. But Eilts does not clearly understood the law either.
Sun Coal refused to terrace the land it reclaimed after mining, he said, but only restored it to the approximate original hilly contours, the minimum required by the law. The problem, Eilts said, is that those hills were too steep to grow anything and eroded naturally into gullies. "I don't see any point in putting it back the way it was when it wasn't any good to start with," Eilts complained.
But the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 was the product of a six-year struggle between industry opponents and environmentalist backers, finally passing over two vetoes by former president Ford. It is as tough on miners as was possible at the time -- too tough, the miners argue.
Kent Crofts thinks his sagebrush problem is a good example. A land reclamation specialist who heads Energy Fuel's six-member environmental compliance team, Crofts gets much of the credit from OSM for his company's performance. But he is one of OSM's strongest critics. The agency has too many deskbround bureaucrats, he complained, enamored of dream-world theory that is unrelated to the desert reality.
A clear line often separates the orange and tan scrub oak and purple sagebrush of Colorado's unmined fields from adjacent reclaimed land. The replanted turf tends to be golden at this time of year, either with straw mulch as at the newly reseeded Meadows mine or with lush, three-year-old alfalfa and bromegrass as at Energy Fuels.
But the hardy grasses shouldn't be here. OSM laws forbid plants not indigenous to the pre-Columbus North America in wildlife habitat areas, even though excellent non-native forage grasses like alfalfa grow wild on the land before it is mined. In this area, Crofts said, OSM recently ordered additional sagebruch replantings, even though the farmers from whom the land is leased don't like the idea.
"They're busy killing it off. The first thing they do when they get it back is to pull the stuff up," said Jim Griffin, the firm's chielf field engineer.
OSM Director Walter Heine said in Washington that forage grasses are fine if the land is to be used for grazing later, and if field trials have shown that the introduced plant won't run amok and strangle other plants.
"It's a lot cheaper and easier to get fescue and alfalfa," he said. "Just throw it in the ground and it'll grow. But it can also keep the normal native species from revegetating."
OSM is still applying the native species rule unrealistically, Crofts said. "They often require us to restore [the land] to a useless condition," he complained.
"The inspectors come out here and can't tell topsoil from subsoil. They don't know a dragline from a grader. It's all theory to them," If Energy Fuels does better than most mines in reclamation, he said, it is probably because the firm is privately, locally owned and not a minor subsidiary of a distant giant oil company.
"Decisions get made right here and there's a lot of local pride," Crofts said. The firm's size allows economies of scale -- like the reclamation team -- that the more common smaller mines like Meadows couldn't afford, he added. Energy Fuels was even doing some tentative reclamation work of its own before the laws made it mandatory.
Sun Coal, by contrast, is a subsidiary of the A. T. Massey Coal Co. of Richmond, Va., the coal arm of St. Joe Minerals Corp. of New York. Meadows is the conglomerate's first western mine, Ellison said. He described the attitude of his distant bosses as "all right. The fact they'd hire me is an indication." But Ellison has a history degree with graduate work in public administration, not reclamation. He loads coal occasionally for customers in pickup trucks in addition to overseeing mine operations -- his several hats typical of the way small mines operate.
The two mines and their troubles with the law do not impress Carolyn Johnson of the Public Lands Institute, a Denver-based environmental protection group that is well respected within OSM. She said surface mining laws should be stiffened to involve more public participation and to prohibit any coal land leasing to firms whose existing mines are not fully in compliance with the law.
Like most environmentalists, Johnson is not convinced that the so-called energy crisis is severe enough to justify any relaxation in pollution or erosion control measures.
Enforcement should be mandatory, she said: A survey of one year's documents found that only 60 percent of Colorado's violations written up in OSM inspectors' reports ever were formally cited for fines. State citations were 2 percent of violations in her study.
OSM officials challenged the finding, saying many apparent violations were really judgment calls.The Interior Department, however, agreed in April to strengthen its enforcement program following a Washington environmentalists' lawsuit. Tom Ehmett, OSM's acting division enforcement director in Denver, said that most western mines, including those in Colorado, were busy complying with the regulations despite their grumbling, in contrast to the violence that has occurred during some enforcement efforts in Tennessee and Kentucky.
There has been some bureaucratic blockheadedness, Heine admitted, especially about the sedimentation pond rules. Enforcement of those has been suspended while more realistic regulations are worked out, he said. But he defended his inspectors as the products of extensive training and field experience. "I'd put them up against just about anybody and certainly against the mine operators," he said.
The law itself, he added, remains "an intelligent one, doing exactly what Congress intended," despite mine owners' criticisms. Its need is demonstrated by the countless abandoned mines whose moonscape devastation bears witness, he said, to unregulated miners' disinterest in the environment.
The agency collects a fee from each coal mining operation on a per-ton basis for state and federal reclamation funding on such abandoned sites, and OSM will spend $75 million next year on 170 projects.
As in the East, Ehmett said, his main enforcement headaches here involve the small mines. "One guy cried about his problems and shut down before we ever got out there, and when we did there wasn't really much he would have needed to do," Ehmett said. "Things are going about as well as can be expected."