Coal Regulatory Program

Download: Regulations Governing Coal Mining in Alaska  (effective April 24, 2009)

Regulatory requirements for coal mines are different than for other types of mines. Spurred by major environmental impacts from coal mining in the 1960's and 1970's, the U.S. Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in1977. This act completely restructured the way coal mining was regulated nationwide and greatly increased environmental oversight.

The federal act also allowed individual states to develop coal regulatory program consistent with the federal legislation, and assume primacy over the federal program. Alaska chose to develop its own program, and enacted the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act on May 2, 1983.

THE LAW (Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control & Reclamation Act)

The Alaska Division of Mining, Land and Water Management (DMLW) administers the Alaska Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the implementing regulations for mining on private, municipal, state and federal land. Alaska's coal program, which must comply with federal standards, comprehensively regulates almost all aspects of coal mining activity from exploration through final reclamation. Some of the more important parts of the program include:

  • An exploration permit is required before any coal exploration activity occurs on any land ownership.
  • A new mine proposal undergoes extensive review before any permit is approved. The review includes at least two separate public notice periods, and is highly prescribed by regulation.
  • The program includes 65 separate performance standards for a variety of coal mining activities - everything from the placement of signs to statistical requirements for measuring revegetation success.
  • DMLW personnel must inspect each operating coal mine an average of once each month.
  • Criminal and civil penalties for violation of the act.

Reclamation Requirements
Ensuring effective and timely reclamation is one of the principal goals of the program, and the state regulations include a variety of reclamation requirements. To ensure that reclamation is accomplished, a coal mine operator must submit a reclamation bond before beginning mining. The bond must be large enough to allow the state to reclaim the site should an operator fail to do so.

Once the operator reclaims an area, the state can approve reclamation and release the bond in three increments. The first bond increment is released after an area has been properly back-filled and graded to the approximate original pre-mining contour. This generally is required within 180 days of the time mining is finished for that portion of the mine area. The second bond increment is released once an area is replanted. The final bond release occurs five to ten years after replanting, and only once the vegetation in the reclaimed area meets standards established for that mine.

Alaska's coal program is a labor-intensive process for both the mine operator and for the state. The federal government provides one-half of the funding for the program, and the state provides the other half.

THE RECORD

Operating Mines
Coal mines have operated in Alaska since 1855. Currently, Alaska's only two operating mines are the Gold Run Pass Mine and the Poker Flats Mine. Both are owned and operated by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. and are within six miles of each other in the Hoseanna Creek Valley east of Healy. The company has been mining coal in the Healy area since 1948. Both of the current mines began before the federal or state regulatory program was passed and for that reason, not all of the law's standards apply to all area of the mines. Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. has pledged a collateral bond of approximately $3 million for the reclamation at these two mines.

Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. is actively reclaiming and revegetating its mined lands. They have a full-time reclamation engineer on staff, as well as a seasonal reclamation work crews. Each year, the company seeds and fertilizes land being reclaimed. In 1997, they planted several thousand birch, willow, alder and spruce seedlings on the two mines.

Permitted but Inactive Mines
There are several other approved coal mine permits in Alaska, although none are currently being mined. Development and exploratory work have been ongoing at the Jonesville Mine near Sutton and land disturbed by these activities will be reclaimed. The Wishbone Hill and Deadfall Syncline mines both have approved permits, but are not active. All of these permits have extensive reclamation components, and lands disturbed by exploration activities for these mines are in an environmentally stable condition.

The Most Recently Permitted Mine - Two Bull Ridge
DMLW recently approved a new mine permit for the Two Bull Ridge Mine. That mine is owned and operated by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. and is located across the valley from the currently operating Poker Flats Mine.

Some of the important reclamation provisions of the permit are:

Topsoil
The company completed an extensive pre-mining soil inventory and will save all soils ahead of mining except those that are unsuitable for reclamation use and those on steep slopes. All of the salvaged soils will be placed back onto reclaimed areas, and the company expects to be able to save enough to place at least one foot of topsoil on all reclaimed areas. Reclamation timing. As the active mining area moves through the 832 acre area of the mine, the company will complete finish grading and replace topsoil within approximately 800 feet of the actively mined area.

Post-Mining Land Use
The company intends to reclaim the mining area for wildlife habitat, which was the predominant pre-mining land use (and is a primary use in the state's land use plan for the area).

Revegetation
The company's revegetation plan has two parts. First, they will seed the area with native grasses to quickly establish a ground cover that will control erosion. Second, they expect natural regeneration to provide the larger woody plants. To accelerate the natural regeneration process, the company will plant 100 plants per acre using naturally occurring woody plants such as willow, alder, or spruce.

Standards for Success
Alaska's coal program regulations require that final bond release not occur until at least 10 years after the mine site is graded and initial vegetation established. The 10 year period is intended to provide time to determine whether revegetation is successful. The Two Bull Ridge Mine permit contains success standards for ground cover, plant density and species diversity.

For More Information Contact

Russell Kirkham,
Coal Regulatory Program Manager
Division of Mining, Land & Water
550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 920
Anchorage, AK 99501-3577
(907) 269-8650

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