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Following the decision by the State Land Board to take an $86 million bribe for the Otter Creek leases from Arch Coal back in March, I received two very polite notes from board members to let me know that regardless of my opinion, they had made the right decision for Montana. Governor Brian Schweitzer wrote to lsay:

What is critical is that any coal mined in Montana meets our environmental standards, and that the land is reclaimed after mining.  The Montana Constitution requires it, and our experience with existing mines in the past thirty five years demonstrates that proper reclamation can return the land to long term productivity for the people who ranch and farm these areas.

And Secretary of State, Linda McCulloch just wanted to let me know that:

This Land Board has affirmed that it would retain oversight on any potential mining and reclamation plans at Otter Creek, in addition to the oversight of the Department of Environmental Quality and other state and federal agencies.  This way, elected officials will be responsible for assuring that the company mitigates water, air and land issues.

I have no doubt the board members are sincere in their belief that Arch Coal can mine a billion tons of coal with little or no environmental effect and that the $86 million bribe had little or nothing to do with their decision, but there are a few small facts that I believe they should be made aware of as well.


This week, the Natural Resource Defense Council released a report on research that exposes the false promise of post-mining restoration and reviews how well coal companies have done in keeping their environmental promises in Appalachia. In The Myth Of Mountain Top Removal Reclamation, NRDC found, that “Roughly 1.2 million acres, including 500 mountains, have been flattened by mountaintop removal coal mining in the central Appalachian region, and only a fraction of that land has been reclaimed for so-called beneficial economic uses…

NRDC examined 500 mountaintop removal sites in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.  Of these locations, 90 were excluded from the study due to active, ongoing mining activity.  Of the 410 remaining sites surveyed:

  • 366 (89.3 percent) had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture
  • 26 (6.3 percent of total) yield some form of verifiable post-mining economic development

In Kentucky and West Virginia, only about four percent showed any post-mining reclamation activity. Virginia ranked best, showing reclamation of 20 percent of its’ sites. In Montana, we have designated the Tongue River Valley along with the Powder River country as a National Sacrifice Area to King Coal. I can only believe our elected leaders when they tell me that they will see that Arch Coal reclaims the Otter Creek tracts and the Tongue River Valley following a few years of devastating mining activity, but the fact remains that taxpayers have paid for the reclamation of 408 abandoned coal mines in eastern Montana since 1980 and for 38 hardrock mines in western Montana.

Promises are one thing, reality is another. The Governor tells me; “I believe the Land Board has crafted the Otter Creek lease in a manner that ensures any eventual mining will be done in a responsible manner…” and as a responsible citizen, we put our trust, and our heritage, in the hands of our elected representatives. Where will Brian Schweitzer and Linda McColluch be forty years from now when Arch Coal defaults on its promises?

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.  Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” (Leviticus 25:23-24)

“In another hundred years, God knows what this will look like.  But it will be used because it’s level land.” — Bill Caylor, Kentucky Coal Association


3 Responses

  1. Arch will only have to bond a percentage of what the actual reclamation will cost. Guaranteed.

  2. Do not forget to consider the fact that reclamation takes time, lots of time. In some cases a couple decades, in others a couple generations. However, I drive by reclaimed areas that have been seeded within the last couple decades, and I observe open range horses and cows that prefer reclamtion to native.

    While some areas have a more difficult time getting a foothold is our dry climate, there are many examples of good reclamation occuring in Montana and Wyoming.

    One site that I have come across with some good case histories can be found here http://ecorestoration.montana.edu/mineland/histories/coal/default.htm . Although the pictures are small, it gives some examples.

    Also take note that reclamation is bonded. Until recalmation areas achieve a status that gets bond release approval from state authorities, the owners of the mine will not get their bond money back. This ensures that quality reclamation will be done.

    • Rand Paul:I don’t think anyone’s going to be missing a hill or two here and there.” Replacing mountain tops with grassy parking lots ain’t reclamation.
      RP again: “a lot of the land is desirable once it gets flattened out…Some people like the flat land, and some of it apparently has become rather valuable when it’s become flattened.

      I lived in Wyoming for eight years and worked around the coal areas near Gillette and Medicine Bow. Believe me, there are a lot more examples of poor reclamation than there are of good reclamation. It takes generations, not decades for the natural vegetation to reclaim the perfectly sculpted grassy mounds left after mining.

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