This term has been used environmentally in two distinct ways. The more historic use refers to making land productive for agriculture. The current usage refers mostly to the restoration of disturbed land to an ecologically stable condition.
The main application for agricultural purposes is the development of irrigation . That was the mission given in 1902 to the federal Bureau of Reclamation under the U.S. Department of Agriculture . This agency has built a total of 180 water projects in 17 western states, including the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams in Arizona, and supplies 10 trillion gal (37.8 trillion l) of water to 31 million people every year. However, this type of reclamation has led to much environmental damage and now scientists are trying to figure out how to reverse this damage. The term reclamation has also been used to describe the system of dikes and pumps in the Netherlands to allow farming of lands below sea level.
The main thrust of reclamation today is the restoration of land damaged by human activity, especially by strip mining for coal . Surface or strip mining represented a third of coal production in 1963, increasing to 60% in 1973. This increase in production led to more damage to the land and once the environmental impact was realized, the reclamation movement began. Since 1970, over two million acres (800,000 ha) of mined lands have been restored, plus 100,000 acres (40,500 ha) of abandoned mines.
However, it wasn't until 1977 that Congress finally passed the landmark legislation, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act . Earlier attempts had failed because of the perceived threat to jobs. This act applies only to coal mining and restricts mining in prime western farmlands or where owners of surface rights object. The act requires mine operators to 1) demonstrate reclamation proficiency; 2) restore the shape of the land to the original contour and revegetate it if requested by the landowner; 3) minimize impacts on the local watershed and groundwater and prevent acid contamination; and 4) pay a fee on each ton of coal mined into a $4.1 billion fund to reclaim orphaned lands left by earlier mining.
Since the act was passed, it has come under fire by both industry and environmentalists, resulting in more than 50 amendments. During the Carter administration, excessive litigation caused many delays to implementing and enforcing the regulations. When Reagan was in office, 60% of the regulations were reviewed or eliminated. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement came under attack during the first Bush administration because of its lack of performance in enforcing the legislation. During this time 6,000 mines were abandoned without reclamation and there were many exemptions from regulations.
In 1995, several amendments were proposed to minimize the duplication of state and federal regulations. A 1997 report by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claimed that continued lack of enforcement led to less than one percent of the 120,000 acres (48,500 ha) strip mined in Colorado and not one acre of over 90,000 acres (36,000 ha) of stripped Indian lands being reclaimed as of 1996. During the second Bush administration, new regulations governing mining on federal lands were established in 2001, which environmentalists claimed would reinstate dated reclamation standards that led to pollution of land and water.
Another type of strip mining, mountaintop removal, has recently come under attack for violating the reclamation legislation. This method involves using machinery to cut off entire mountaintops, as much as 400 ft (122 m), to reach the coal underneath. The rock and earth removed from these mountaintops are dumped into nearby streams in waste piles called valley fills. Environmentalists believe many streams are being destroyed; in West Virginia alone over 1,000 mi (1600 km) of streams have been buried. These mines violate the conditions for buffer zone variances (no mining activities can take place within a 100-ft (30-m) buffer zone near streams, unless environmental conditions are satisfied.) Another federal court ruling in 1999 said that valley fills also violated the Clean Water Act . For some mine operators who claim their sites will be used for grazing or wildlife habitat , improper reclamation methods prevent the sites from being used for this purpose.
Reclamation clearly adds to the cost of coal. For Appalachian coal this reaches 15% of the cost per Btu (British Thermal Unit). The 1977 act created a level playing field where all compete under the same rules. Costs easily involve $1,000–$5,000 per acre, but this is small compared to royalties paid the landowner. In Germany, where coal seams are very thick and land values are at a premium because of heavy population pressure, great efforts are made to reclaim the land, even up to $10,000 per acre. In terms of productive farm, grazing, or timber lands, restoration after a one-time extraction of coal allows a return to sustainable agriculture or forestry.
Strip mining creates four landforms which the reclamation process must address: rows of spoil banks, final cut canyons, high walls adjacent to the final cut, and coal-haul roads. The first two are relatively easy, but the latter two require special treatment. Reshaping the land to the original contour and keeping the soil in place are major challenges in hilly terrain. Operators usually find it necessary to cut into the unmined hillside to make it grade into the mined land below. Subsidence of overburden could conceivably create a cliff face along the headwall if not adequately compacted. Minimizing grading during the mining process is one way to minimize the amount of land excavation and alteration.
When possible, natural looking slopes can be achieved during the mining process by mining to the prescribed safety angles, or by the cut and fill method. This is generally the most inexpensive means of reclamation. Before mining, topography maps should be made of existing slopes and contours so that mining can match these as close as possible.
Besides physically reshaping the land, for reclamation to succeed the essential needs of erosion control, topsoil replacement, and nurturing and protecting young vegetation until it can survive on its own must be met. These needs are interdependent. Vegetation is crucial for erosion control, especially as the slope gradient increases; however vegetation struggles without topsoil, critical nutrients, and protection from wildlife and livestock. One additional problem, acid mine drainage , is eliminated by good reclamation, as the oxidizing materials which produce the acid are buried.
Coal-haul roads are very dense from the heavy vehicles traversing them. They must be ripped up and plowed for even minimal revegetation success or, less desirable, be buried under overburden. Such access roads can cause the biggest disturbance to sites since they must be designed to meet roadway standards. These roads should thus be designed to minimize grading and require careful planning.
The one most crucial element, and most expensive, is topsoil replacement. Earthwork (backfilling and grading) accounts for up to 90% of reclamation costs. Original soils provide five major benefits: 1) a seedbed with the physical properties needed for survival; 2) a reservoir for needed nutrients; 3) a superior medium for water absorption and retention; 4) a source of native seeds and plants; and 5) an ecosystem where the decomposer and aerator-mixer organisms can thrive. The absence of even one of these categories often dooms reclamation efforts.
The more one studies this problem, the more important the topsoil becomes; truly it is one of the earth's most vital resources. Loose overburden is sometimes so coarse and lacking in nutrients that it can support little plant cover. A quick buildup of biomass is critical for erosion control, but without the topsoil to sustain both plant productivity and the microorganisms needed to decompose the dead biomass, any ground cover is soon lost, exposing the soil to increasingly higher erosion rates.
Some areas, such as flat lowlands, can revegetate with or without human aid. But for many lands, especially those with large fractures of rock and air voids, reclamation is practically an all or nothing venture, with little tolerance for halfway measures. Indeed, in conditions where most of the negative impacts are retained within the site, reclamation may easily worsen conditions by removing the barriers to runoff and sediment .
Stabilization of the site may also be needed to complete the mining and reclamation process. Methods include extensive grading, slope alteration, hazard removal, and soil stabilization. The latter method increases the load carrying capacity of soils and can be achieved by using reinforced earth or a chemical treatment. The ability to handle runoff and precipitation is improved. Runoff can also be reduced by planting vegetation on top of the slope or cut.
Much of what is needed for effective reclamation is known. What has been missing has been the will to do it and the legal clout for enforcement. A new approach holds promise to increase this willingness to reclaim the land, which is based on the emerging field of eco-asset management. Ecological resources such as forests and wetlands are developed and treated as financial assets to their owner. This market-based approach results in higher quality reclamation, an increase in the number of sites reclaimed, and economic benefits to property owners and other participants. Hopefully, such an approach will help persuade the mining industry that reclamation is an investment in the future.
[Laurel M. Sheppard ]
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