Chapter 5: Policy Context

MTR mining was allowed to assume its current prominence though a history of lax regulation of the coal mining industry throughout Appalachia. The first round of regulations was made possible by VISTA volunteers, who came to the coalfields in the 1970s and discovered inhumane, unsafe and environmentally wasteful conditions in the mines. By building a coalition between the residents of coal mining areas and supporters across the country, the activists of a previous generation were able to build support for the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which was signed into law in 1977. SMCRA specified that surface mining could only take place once certain environmental conditions were satisfied, that certain natural features such as flowing streams could not be disturbed by surface mining, and that any site disturbed by surface mining had to be restored to its “approximate original contour” once the mined resources of the site were exhausted.

This law has proven inadequate for real regulation. In practice, the notion of "approximate original contour" often means that mining sites are seeded with fast-growing switchgrass, even though a single monoculture plant can never restore an ecosystem that previously supported thousands of species. Even more importantly, the implementation of this law has been nearly nonexistent. Almost all MTR sites violate the SMCRA by definition; it is nearly impossible to practice MTR mining without filling local streams, which violates a provision of the act that requires a “buffer zone” of 100 feet between fill sites and flowing streams. But this fact has gone ignored by the local authorities responsible for enforcing the act. As of this writing, Tennessee is the only state with direct federal enforcement of the SMCRA. All other states rely upon their state’s Department of Environmental Protection for enforcement. There is often no political will to enforce the existing regulations at the state level.

Under the Obama administration, there has been some qualified progress. No outright ban on MTR mining has been proposed on the national level, and most of the action to block MTR sites has been the direct influence of federal EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The Obama administration has taken up a de facto policy that condemns individual sites without implementing national regulation. As such, it falls to lower-level administrators to block MTR mining on an individual, site-by-site basis.

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