Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977)

views updated

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977)

Joseph P. Tomain

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) (P.L. 95-87, 91 Stat 445) is one of the most comprehensive federal regulations on land use. Congress passed the SMCRA, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter, to "assure that the coal supply essential to the Nation's energy requirements, and to its economic and social well-being, is provided and to strike a balance between protection of the environment and agricultural productivity and the Nation's need for coal as an essential source of energy." At the heart of the act is the "reclamation" provisions requiring mine operators to put land back in place after concluding mining operations.

Coal mining, particularly when using "surface" or "strip" mining techniques, has a significant detrimental impact on the land and environment, including water and soil pollution and erosion. Prior to 1977 individual state regulation had proved to be ineffective because state laws were underenforced. Congress believed that federal legislation was necessary to establish minimum nationwide standards, ensuring that competition among coal producers would not be used to induce states to lower environmental standards or fail to enforce existing laws. Before enacting the SMCRA, however, the legislature debated the issue for seven years, raising concerns over how well a uniform standard could be applied to varied regions.


The effect the SMCRA would have on various agricultural and environmental interests were among the chief concerns of Congress. The act contained four key regulations to protect these interests:

  1. It required potential miners to submit a permit and detailed application before commencing surface coal mining.
  2. It required coal companies to post a bond to ensure that the costs of reclamation would be covered.
  3. Miners would have to satisfy highly detailed standards for reclamation.
  4. The act delegated regulatory enforcement to the secretary of the interior and individual state regulatory agencies.

In general, the act required mining companies to restore to the mined land its approximate contour and use capacity, to stabilize the soil and redistribute the topsoil, and to restore plant life to the site.


The SMCRA was enacted under the commerce clause powers found in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, allowing Congress to regulate activities that have an effect on interstate commerce. In Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association, Inc. (Hodel No. 1) and Hodel v. Indiana (Hodel No. 2), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the SMCRA and its regulations as intended to protect interstate commerce.


Although the SMCRA met with considerable resistancemine owners rejected the added costs and states did not want additional federal interventionthe act allows for a great deal of state autonomy in the implementation of its provisions. The SMCRA is administered through a system of permits, inspections, and fines. Once a state develops a plan of reclamation that is approved by the Interior Department, state agencies are in charge of the administration, and state courts have jurisdiction over any disputes. Although no significant amendments have been made since 1977, the specific regulations and final rules have been subject to continued adjustment by the courts and various administrations. Tension between the relative powers of federal and state agencies still exist. In addition, questions are often raised about the economic effectiveness of the regulations, as the sums required to restore mined land to agricultural use often exceed the sums such use of the land will yield.

See also: Mineral Leasing Act of 1920; Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act.


Bosselman, Fred, Jim Rossi, and Jacqueline Lang Weaver. Energy, Economics and the Environment. New York: Foundation Press, 2000.

Fox, William F., Jr. Federal Regulation of Energy. Colorado Springs, CO: Shepard's/McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Mansfield, Marla E. "Coal." In Energy Law and Policy for the 21st Century, ed. Energy Law Group. Denver, CO: Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, 2000.

Muchow, David J., and William A. Mogel. Energy Law and Transactions. Newark, NJ: Lexis Nexis, 2002.