reclamation

Amy Sisk/Inside Energy

Way up in northern North Dakota lies an old oilfield with a problem 60 years in the making.

It’s noticeable on farmers’ land, like the fields harvested by Clarke Stevens near the small town of Glenburn.

His wheat fields span far across the prairie. In the middle is a 3-acre patch of barren soil.

“We’re always farming around areas like this, and every year they continue to grow,” Stevens said.

 

This is the site of an old brine pit. Decades ago, trucks took this salty wastewater — produced alongside oil from nearby wells — and dumped it into this pit.

Stephanie Joyce

West Virginia has settled a suit with Alpha Natural Resources over inaccurate revenue projections included in the coal company’s bankruptcy plan. In early November the state accused Alpha’s former top executives of fraud after it came to light that the company had $100 million dollars in undisclosed liabilities on its balance sheet. Those executives now work for Contura, which owns Alpha’s former mines in Wyoming.

Aaron Schrank

Amid a wave of historic coal bankruptcies, states like Texas and Colorado have taken proactive steps to make sure coal companies are on the hook for their future cleanup costs while in Wyoming, over $1 billion of these cleanup costs have gotten tied up in bankruptcy court.

Why are there different outcomes in different energy-rich states?

Stephanie Joyce

 

 

Glance at a satellite image of northeast Wyoming, and you can’t miss the coal mines. Even zoomed out, the square-cornered grey blotches stand out—stretching north to south over more than 70 miles. But if all goes according to plan, someday, when the mining is done, those scars will disappear, erased from the landscape by intensive reclamation efforts.

According to federal regulators, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality did not take appropriate action against Alpha Natural Resources when it was in violation of coal mining regulations. 

The issue, outlined in a letter sent by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) to DEQ, was that the bankrupt company was mining coal without enough reclamation bonding in place to cover its hundreds of millions dollars in reclamation liabilities.  

A judge in Richmond, VA approved coal giant Alpha Natural Resources' plan to get out of bankruptcy Thursday. The approval went through, in part, because Alpha agreed to put up real financial assurances to cover future reclamation costs, which totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. 

"The terms of the settlement provide a managed route for the company to restructure and continue operating, while also taking responsibility for mine land reclamation as a result of former disturbances of private and federal lands," a Department of the Interior representative wrote in a statement. 

 A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate today by Senator Maria Cantwell (D- WA) would ensure coal mine cleanup costs would get more expensive for coal companies. Under current regulations, some companies pay little to nothing to make sure coal mine cleanup – or reclamation – gets done. This bill would change that. Confused? Let me explain!

With three of the four largest American coal companies in bankruptcy, a federal regulator gave a blunt assessment today of potential problems with future coal mine clean up. The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSMRE) is asking for public comment on how to make sure that coal mine reclamation is paid for.  

 

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Peabody Energy is one of the largest coal companies in the world and operates mines all over the United States. But some of its senior lenders are now recommending bankruptcy, as the company faces potential defaults on several loans.

In January, the federal government notified the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that bankrupt coal company Arch Coal could be in violation of mining regulations. On Monday, DEQ responded to the notice, writing that it has already dealt with the alleged violation which relates to Arch Coal's reclamation bonding.

Regulators cited an agreement that would require Arch to put aside some funds for future coal mine clean up as one of the steps it has taken to ensure the company's reclamation obligations are covered. 

The federal government notified regulators in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico this week that one of the world's largest coal companies may be out of compliance with coal mining regulations. 

In response to a federal inquiry about potential mining violations by bankrupt coal company Alpha Natural Resources, Wyoming regulators say they are in compliance with the law. But, regulators did note that the challenges created by "the dramatic decline in Alpha's financial condition... highlight certain systemic problems with self-bonding." Self-bonding references a financial tool that gives companies a pass on putting aside funds for clean-up if they can prove financial strength. 

Another coal giant, with operations all over the US, declared bankruptcy today.

St. Louis-based Arch Coal hopes to get rid of $4.5 billion dollars in debt through this Chapter 11 reorganization. The company mines coal in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois, and Appalachian states and says it expects operations to continue during bankruptcy proceedings.

Duncan Harris, Flickr Creative Commons

Colorado regulators say the state is changing its approach to ensuring coal mines get cleaned up.  

The change involves self-bonding, a program that gives coal companies a pass on putting aside money for future mine clean-up, if they can pass a test of financial strength.

Even though many coal companies are struggling in a steep market downturn and some have even declared bankruptcy, many of them are still self-bonded. The problem? It's no longer clear whether those companies will actually be able to pay for future coal mine reclamation.

As Arch Coal's financial health continues to decline, Western landowner groups are raising concerns about the company's ability to clean up its mines in the future. 

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, including the Powder River Basin Resource Council, filed a formal complaint today with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality over Arch Coal's ongoing mining operations.

Stephanie Joyce / Wyoming Public Radio

Driving around the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming with Jeff Gillum and Jeff Campbell is like playing an extended game of “Where’s Waldo?”

Where most people would see a yard full of heavy machinery or an unassuming patch of prairie, Campbell and Gillum are constantly spotting coal bed methane wells. They point out the signature tan well houses everywhere as we drive around Gillette: in people’s front yards, in a storage company’s parking lot, even at the end of the driving range at the golf course.

Stephanie Joyce

In the latest sign of a struggling US coal market, one of Wyoming’s largest coal producers has failed a financial test from the state.

Alpha Natural Resources owns several large coal mines in the Powder River Basin. Mining companies in Wyoming are typically required to post bonds assuring regulators they can reclaim or clean up the mines when they’re abandoned. But under a provision called “self-bonding,” companies meeting certain financial criteria don’t actually have to put up the money. 

Famartin / Wikimedia Commons

A reclamation expert with Cloud Peak Energy is hoping techniques developed at one of the company’s Powder River Basin coal mines can be applied across the West. Kyle Wendtland helped develop a strategy to combat cheatgrass, an invasive species that’s bad for grazing. It’s become a major problem in the West, with more than 50 million acres affected. Currently, the most common method for removing it is to apply herbicides. Cloud Peak’s approach removes the weed mechanically and then reseeds the area with native grasses. Wendtland says it’s cutting-edge.

The head of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center says regulations for reclamation on federal land are not consistent.

Pete Stahl says different BLM field offices across the state have different requirements for reclaiming land after energy development and are inconsistent in how they monitor reclamation. He says when the BLM is evaluating reclamation success, they sometimes compare the reclaimed site to just one small area of undisturbed land, which he says is not enough for a scientific comparison.

An international conference about mining reclamation ended in Laramie today. The American Society of Mining and Reclamation and the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center hosted the event, which featured technical presentations about reclamation issues as well as policy questions and case studies.

UW professor and director of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, Pete Stahl, says there were many Australian and Chinese stakeholders in attendance.   

Wyoming hosts mining reclamation conference

Jun 4, 2013

Mining industry representatives and researchers are gathering in Laramie this week for the meeting of the American Society of Mining and Reclamation. The last time Wyoming hosted the American Society of Mining and Reclamation was in 2007. Peter Stahl, director of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, says the fact that the industry gathering has returned to Wyoming so soon is a testament to the state’s role in the field of land reclamation.