Mined Land Reclamation:
Means and Ends
Healing damaged farmland in Illinois
Coal was an issue in Illinois in the 1980s as it is today, but not because its use threatened to make the world boil to death. Rather, the fear was that strip-mining good farmland would mean that the planet would starve to death. Turned out that the world needed neither Illinois coal nor Illinois topsoil as much as was feared back then. This article is Part 1 of two; Part 2 is here. The problems posed by reclamation had changed since 1980, when I first examined them for the magazine; that piece is here.
Illinois Issues introduction: The issue of reclaiming land and especially restoring the quality of its topsoil after stripmining has been caught up in convoluted debate for years. This is the first of a two-part article presenting the context of this issue in Illinois. The issue illustrates at times classic confrontations of state versus federal policy, technology versus economics, big industry versus rural interests and other dilemmas when priorities vary. Part 2 will appear next month.
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When Taylor Pensoneau, vice president of the Illinois Coal Association, speaks to audiences, he often prefaces his remarks with some basic geology. "Coal," he reminds them, "must be mined where it exists." In Illinois, this fact is as inconvenient as it is indisputable. Among the places coal exists is beneath an estimated 21 million acres of prime farm soils, roughly a quarter of all such soils in the U.S. Of that land, roughly 1.5 million acres lies atop strippable coal seams—the work, as one writer put it in 1980, of a cosmic prankster.
As of 1977, 200,000 acres of Illinois land had been "disturbed" by either strip mining or by such surface effects of deep mining as refuse piles. Most of these acres have been rescued, either by the companies that mined them, by nature, or (most recently) by state and federal governments. Only about 20,000 acres remain of these so-called "orphaned lands," many of them so inhospitable that scarcely a weed grows on them after half a century. It is no flight of fancy to liken these gaunt and lifeless stretches to the mountains of the moon.
Until 1962 there were no state laws setting reclamation standards for land despoiled by strip mining in Illinois. Those initial state standards weren't very exacting; most companies simply graded off the tops of spoil banks and seeded the ground by airplane to make pasture. Illinois' reclamation law was tightened in 1968, and again in 1971. In 1975, amendments to the law gave Illinois one of the toughest such laws in the U.S., one which (Illinois officials boasted) was a model for the nation.
Congress disagreed. In 1977, when Congress ended several years of debate and passed the first federal strip mine act—the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA—it set forth reclamation standards that outdid even Illinois' in ambition.
Federal v. state standards
Historians of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act will no doubt note as significant the fact that Congress deliberated its terms while much of the world suffered through a food shortage. Farmland had become a source of vital foreign exchange by producing grain which, instead of being a bothersome surplus to be given away, was being purchased by eager customers abroad. It was no coincidence that one of the farm state senators who successfully cosponsored amendments to the SMCRA to protect farmland—Sen. Charles H. Percy of Illinois—was also a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
Percy co-authored the so-called "prime farmlands" provisions of the SMCRA. In the world envisioned by Percy and his congressional colleagues, coal companies which sought to mine farmland officially deemed "prime" because of its fertile soils and gentle grade would have to restore that land to 100 percent of its pre-mining productivity. Moreover, those companies would have to demonstrate in advance their "technological capability" to achieve such miracles of regeneration as a condition of receiving the required permit to mine from the state.
The SMCRA was a comprehensive piece of law, and thus complex. The prime farmland provisions within it were accepted almost as a legislative afterthought. They affect only a handful of states at all, and only one—Illinois—significantly. In Illinois those provisions mattered a great deal. The SMCRA raised by several notches the reclamation target coal companies were expected to hit. No state, not even Illinois, had imposed such unforgiving standards for its prime lands. (The SMCRA's standards for nonprime farmland were considerably less exacting.) Nor was the change merely one of degree.
Heretofore state reclamation laws had required specific soil reconstruction techniques ("performance standards," in the argot of the regulators) on the assumption that damaged soil productivity would thus be restored. By setting a specific productivity target, the SMCRA's prime farmland provisions broadened the reclamation debate to include ends as well as means. In the future it wouldn't only be how the land was reclaimed that mattered, but how well.
In Illinois, "how" to reclaim mined farm soils was already on the books in the form of regulations implementing the state's own 1975 program amendments. Rule 1104 of the 1975 Illinois reclamation program had set forth certain specific performance standards that operators were to meet in reclaiming what it called "high capability" lands after mining. Topsoil and subsoils were to be segregated during mining and replaced atop graded spoil. The original contours of the land were to be restored, and the number and size of rocks in the subsoil were to be limited according to stated "textural requirements." The minimum overall depth of the reclaimed soil was to be 48 inches—a generous standard to be sure but not excessively so, since corn plants send their roots 60 inches below the surface.
That such procedures were marked improvements over past practice was indisputable. Their extravagance stemmed from the extravagant richness of Illinois soils. (An out-of-stater remarks ruefully that one of the reasons no other state required a four-foot soil reconstruction in the '70s was that no other state has four feet of soil to reconstruct.) The only test of restored productivity applied under Illinois' reclamation law, however, was a "grass count"—a field inspection to determine whether a grass plant or some other approved ground cover had taken root in every six square inches or so of reclaimed soil.
That former prime cropland could be reclaimed to pasture had been proven in Illinois a quarter century earlier; indeed, the success of such efforts explained the otherwise curious fact that cattle were for a time a by-product of coal mining, as firms such as Peabody grazed commercial herds on reclaimed mine sites. But corn, not cows, was the crop Congress intended for acres reclaimed under the SMCRA. Like the Illinois law, the SMCRA sets forth specific performance standards for the restoration of mined prime land. Not only must the topsoil or "A" horizon be segregated and replaced after mining, but two separate subsoil layers, the "B" and "C" horizons, must be saved as well for placement in proper order atop graded spoil, to a total depth of at least 48 inches. The differences in reclamation techniques demanded by the old Illinois law and the SMCRA are relatively minor. No exotic equipment is needed, even if the familiar equipment must be used more fastidiously.
The imposition of a productivity standard, however, is a different matter. Doug Downing is the supervisor of the Land Reclamation Division of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals, the agency responsible for implementing the SMCRA in the state. "The productivity business," Downing says, "is a whole new ball game." When the SMCRA was passed, no one had yet proved that it was possible to restore prime farmlands to 100 percent of their pre-mining productivity, regardless of how one went about it. No state had required it, and no coal company had volunteered to try it. In fact, the absence of such proof had led Congress originally to consider a flat ban on the mining of prime lands. Members were dissuaded from imposing a ban because of the industry's insistence that such a standard could be met, but they were sufficiently skeptical to attach the pre-permit reclamation demonstration as a condition.
For one thing, soil reconstruction technologies of the sort mandated by the SMCRA have been field tested (in limited ways) only since the late 1970s; and although nearly 80 tests of reclaimed Midwest farm soils are in the literature, they offer little consolation to the eager generalizer. Yields vary widely according to the age of the test plots, the methods used to reclaim them. and the management methods applied to the test crops—not to mention the chemical and physical properties unique to each site. And while yields (measured as a percentage of yields from similar, undisturbed soils) commonly reach 60 percent or higher, consistent full restoration remains elusive.
The result is the familiar dilemma that arises whenever partisanship awaits proof: Coal companies can't prove they can fulfill the productivity promise set by the SMCRA, and their critics can't prove they can't. Russell Boulding is a reclamation expert familiar with midwestern soils. Boulding noted in a recent report that until more is known about reclamation techniques, "The possibility of failure will have to be recognized . . . if prime farmland is to be mined."
Testing the limits of those possibilities is what soil scientist Ivan Jansen does. An associate professor of pedology at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Jansen, since 1978, has been in charge of a reclamation research project described as the largest of its kind in the U.S. A second five-year phase of tests at four mine sites around the state got underway in 1982, with more than $1 million in funding from five coal companies with mines in Illinois.
The aim of a good reclamation plan, Jansen explains, is to build an artificial soil suitable for row crops while natural soil formation processes slowly reestablish pre-mining fertility. Given a little help, nature can, with time, heal even the injuries done to soil by mining. Grasses add organic matter and protect the soil surface from erosion. Freezing and thawing can loosen top-soils compacted by machinery; so can deep-rooting plants. But such natural soil formation processes can take hundreds of years to restore fertility, although even minimal reclamation steps can reduce that span to a matter of decades. Such luxuries of time are not allowed by the SMCRA. The act demands that reclamation take place within a "reasonable" time after mining, a span interpreted by rule-makers to be ten years.
Jansen's data to date reveals some provisional truths about the process. (Those truths are confirmed by other research.) It is the physical properties of farm soil such as porosity that are hardest to restore; chemical problems such as inadequate nutrients or altered pH are relatively easy to solve. Indeed, Jansen suggests that topsoil replacement, which has been Holy Writ to Illinois reclamationists going back to the 1920s, may not be the most crucial element in soil reclamation. He goes so far as to call it a "minor consideration," adding that it is the physical structure of reclaimed soil (especially compaction) that has the greater impact on yields. In some places —for example, in those parts of southern Illinois where the clay-filled "B" horizon forms a barrier to the easy movement of roots and water—the subsoil structure can actually be improved by mixing the "B" and "C" horizons after mining.
Clark Ashby, professor of botany at Southern Illinois University at Carbon-dale and a pioneer reclamation researcher in Illinois, points out that original soils are different from reclaimed soils, and that farm methods that worked on the former won't necessarily work on the latter. Reclaimed soils pose problems of farming technique similar to the situation that confronted Illinois farmers a century ago when they encountered prairie soils for the first time. Ashby notes that yield improvements from some of his tests mirror those achieved by Illinois farmers since the 1870s, only on a greatly shortened time scale. "A learning curve is needed for mine soils which are new to Illinois soil scientists," he has written. "This curve could match the ones for the soils of the prairies and former forests, which together have become the foundation of our current agricultural production."
Ashby is critical of cookbook-style performance standards as a way to reclaim land. Too-restrictive regulations based on the SMCRA, he has written, "impede reclamation and foster excessive costs." He adds, "The federal law has some provision for alternate practices, but they tend not to be used" because of "bureaucratic timidity." Ashby says that while the act allows experimental alternatives to prescribed subsoil replacement procedures, it is not so flexible regarding topsoil replacement or grading. The conversion of once-irregular land to carefully contoured flat slopes proves yet again that beauty is only skin-deep. The long slopes left after mining, complains Ashby, increase runoff and its attendant erosion; erosion remedies such as ground covers, however, compete with other post-mining planting such as trees. ("Forestry as a reclamation alternative has practically been wiped out by the federal law," he says.) When settling occurs on land graded to too perfect a flatness, ponds result in the middle of reclaimed fields; in Ashby's words, this is "good for the ducks, bad for the farmers."
Ashby is not alone in his criticism of performance standards, even if his reasons and those of his fellow critics sometimes differ. The Illinois South Project, the Herrin-based activist organization long active in coal and farmland issues, shares Ashby's opinion that reclaiming soil by the book may not be enough when the book is still being written. Chuck Sheketoff of the Illinois South staff accuses the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals of putting an "irresponsible faith" in performance standards. Congress had its doubts as well, at least as far as the reclamation of prime farmland was concerned, which is why the SMCRA demands post-mining proof of productivity recovery: Reclaimed prime land must have row crops grown on it for at least three years as a condition of the release of the coal company's bond to show that the operator has fulfilled the promise made in his permit application.
Not all of even Illinois' soils can be classed as prime, of course. A second, lesser major category of productive farmland—so-called "high capability" lands—also comes under the protection of the state's reclamation program. High capability lands, while generally less flat and covered by less fertile soils than prime lands, nonetheless are capable of commercial row-crop production. The 1975 amendments to Illinois' then-existing reclamation law drew no distinction between prime lands and high capability lands, requiring simply that any land capable of growing row crops be restored to that capability after mining.
That old Illinois standard, ambitious enough in its day, was superseded in the case of prime lands by the SMCRA. The old, high capability standard survived in the Illinois program, however, even though it could no longer be so universally applied. As is the case with prime soils under the SMCRA, high capability soils must be rebuilt to a minimum depth of 48 inches. The post-mining productivity target is slightly more modest, however (90 percent compared to 100 percent); soil replacement requirements are less rigorous, and operators need not demonstrate in advance their ability to achieve it. Even so, Illinois' standards for nonprime row-crop capable lands are tougher than the SMCRA minimums—a point conceded even by critics of the Illinois program.
It is not so much the standards which trouble those critics, however, as the worry that they are not being applied conscientiously enough or, worse, that they are being applied to the wrong kinds of land. Congress allowed operators several exemptions from the prime farmland reclamation requirements. Prime land mined under permits issued before the SMCRA took effect—so-called grandfathered lands—are exempt. So is land which, whatever its agronomic status as prime, was not actually used for row-crop production in five of the ten years prior to the commencement of mining—the "historical use" exemption. Also exempt are certain kinds of land left behind after mining, such as water impoundments or haul roads—uses which can account for as much as 30 percent of the land under permit at some sites.
Such exempted land must be reclaimed under Illinois' program, of course. But it needn't be reclaimed according to prime land standards; instead, the lesser standards applied to so-called "high capability" land are used.
Critics of the Illinois program complain that the too generous use of such exemptions leaves a lot of prime farmland unreclaimed to its fullest productivity. When the U.S. Office of Surface Mining reviewed 32 of the first 37 permits issued by the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals (DMM) under the SMCRA program, as part of its annual oversight evaluation, it found that only half of the prime land within permit areas (a bit more than 4,000 acres) was slated for reclamation to prime farmland standards. Some of the exempted land was grandfathered, some of it qualified for "negative determination" because of its pre-mining or post-mining use. While the acreage involved to date is small, such statistics reveal what some regard as an ominous trend. Consultant Russell Boulding was commissioned by Illinois South to study Illinois' compliance with the SMCRA's prime farmland provisions to date. "The combined effects of these exemptions," concluded Boulding in his report, The Lost Harvest, "has been to effectively abort measures for the protection of prime farmland during the seven years since SMCRA was enacted."
It isn't merely the less rigorous reclamation standards to which exempted prime land is being restored that trouble such critics of the Illinois program as Illinois South. Prime land reclaimed as prime land must, according to the regulations, be returned to actual row-crop production after mining. But land not subject to the prime land standards—exempted prime land and nonprime, "high capability" row-crop land—need not be. The capability of such nonprime, row-crop land is assumed to be restored by careful adherence to the performance standards for soil reconstruction set forth in the state regulations.
The regulations, in other words, demand that both capability and use be restored on prime soils—the post-mining use (row crops actually growing on the mined soil) also providing the proof of successful reclamation. Non-prime, row-crop lands must also have their pre-mining capability restored, but need not be put to the same uses after mining. (If this is a loophole, it allows traffic through it in both directions: It is just as permissible to grow corn on reclaimed timberland as it is to convert a corn field to a pasture after mining.)
The old Illinois law was indifferent to how row-crop capable lands of any class were used, either before or after mining; capability was the only test. It was Congress, via the SMCRA, which imposed use criteria, principally in the form of the historic use exemption. DMM's Downing, for one, regards that exemption as reasonable. "If land is not being farmed when it was in private hands," he suggests, "maybe it shouldn't be considered prime farmland." Often much of the land under permit for mining is row-crop capable but has been in timber for years. Wildlife interests (including the state's own Department of Conservation, which has the right to review and comment on permit applications submitted to DMM) object to the conversion of timbered lands to cropland because of the resulting loss of wildlife habitat. Says Downing, "We have more than one interest group to look after."
The federal Office of Surface Mining's (OSM) most recent evaluation of the Illinois program catalogs what it calls "substantial" changes in land use at mine sites before and after mining. Pastureland increased 93 percent; land used for water impoundments was up 184 percent, while land devoted to fish and wildlife habitat increased 888 percent. Cropland, however, declined as a result of mining and reclamation (or will, when the process is completed) by 22 percent. Forested land also will be diminished in permitted areas, by roughly the same percentage.
OSM was careful to note that figures can be deceiving. "The cropland loss . . . does not represent a decrease in land capable of row crop agricultural use since the pre-mining and post-mining acreage of Illinois high capability land does not decrease." [Emphasis in the original.]
Illinois South, which is by far the most vigilant watchdog of the state's farm resource, is not persuaded. Chuck Sheketoff points out that land that is row-crop capable is being approved for bond release after reclamation without its row-crop capability being actually proved. The failure lies in the regulations, not their application; a post-mining productivity test is not required for nonprime lands under the SMCRA. Illinois South has made plain its disappointment that DMM has not sought to impose such a test as part of its own program. "We don't want to dictate land use," Sheketoff explains. "If the coal companies want to return it to pasture, fine. If they want to return it to forest, fine. But they ought to row-crop it first, to prove they've achieved full productivity."
Speculating the long term
On what may be the central point of the reclamation debate—can Illinois' best soils be reclaimed?—there seems to be developing a cautious consensus that they can. Boulding expresses the concerns of Illinois South and others when he says that a return to 100 percent is "doubtful," at least as the SMCRA is presently being administered. The industry, contend the critics, will not achieve 100 percent soil restoration unless the state compels it to. The bureaucrats are more sanguine. James Fulton, head of the Illinois office of the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining, and thus the man responsible for monitoring Illinois' compliance with the act, says, "As an individual, I'm sure that there's going to be productive farmland when all is said and done." DMM's Downing concurs, adding a necessary qualifier: "My own opinion is that there's a solution to the problem. It's a matter of spending the bucks to solve it."
The U of I's Jansen has found encouragement in his test plots in recent years. "I think it is possible to construct a soil which can be quite competitive with undisturbed land," he says. "I'm not necessarily saying that the industry will achieve it in all cases, or be able to afford to. But a couple of years ago I would have fudged on even that statement."
To an outsider, however, disputes over exemptions from prime farmland and similar quarrels may seem little more than quibbles. While the acreage potentially affected by strip mining is sizable, the actual acreage to be affected seems likely to remain much smaller, if only because reclamation costs since passage of the SMCRA in 1977 are a disincentive to mine. Total grandfathered prime land in Illinois, for instance, amounts to an infinitesimal 0.12 percent of the state's prime land, while the total land affected in the 117 years since the advent of strip mining in Illinois amounts to less than 1 percent of the state's surface area.
Staffers from Illinois South argue a different case. They note that while mined land may comprise only a minute fraction of the state as a whole, it may constitute a considerable part of the township or county where the mining actually takes place. And, they admit, the reclamation fight is only partly over this bushel of production or that unreclaimed haul road. It is principally a fight over who makes decisions about resources in Illinois. "In the short term," insists Illinois South's Sheketoff, "reclamation is a necessary end for those who need the land after the coal is taken. In the longer term, it is a means to save agriculture and the ag economy and thus the economic health of rural Illinois." ●
Sidebar: Reclamation costs and the market for coal
The arguments have been in terms of reclamation technology, but the opposition of the Illinois coal industry to the farmland reclamation standards set forth under the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) is rooted in concerns about costs. Peabody Coal, for instance, complained upon the act's passage that reclaiming an acre of prime Illinois land could cost as much as $15,000. Illinois reclamation officials note that average costs run a little lower—$10,000 to $15,000 per acre—but that is still several times more than even the primest Illinois real estate is worth as farmland.
The issue is not reclamation costs per se, but the fact that they fall most heavily on companies working in strip mines in the deep soil parts of the Midwest. Reclamation costs, along with high sulfur content, are among the factors that have put some Illinois coal at a price disadvantage with coal taken from strip mines in the West; there, overburden is thinner, coal seams are thicker, and soils are poorer, meaning that reclamation costs per ton of coal mined are much less.
Depending on the seam being mined, reclamation costs under the SMCRA can add as much as several dollars per ton to the selling price of Illinois coal. Historically, the industry's resistance to reclamation standards has been tied to the price that coal could command in the market. In the 1920s, demands that coal operators simply level the ridgelike spoil banks left by strip mining were rejected as too costly. While many factors played a part in the industry's decision to accept Illinois' own fault lough farmland reclamation standards adopted in 1975—a desire for enhanced public image among them—one of the key factors was simply that the OPEC-led increases in the price of oil also pulled up the price of oil's competitors such as coal. Reclamation costs of $3 per ion pose a hopeless competitive burden when that ton sells for $15; they are less a burden when that ton sells for $45.
The economic impact of the SMCRA regulations is too recent, and the factors shaping the industry's fortunes in Illinois too complex, to make prediction prudent. Doug Downing, the supervisor of the Land Reclamation Section of the Department of Mines and Minerals, says that one major producer has plans (so far unannounced) to phase out its Illinois surface operations. "We've had several large surface mines closed and none open in the last three or four years," Downing adds, "whereas we've seen several large deep mines open."
Taylor Pensoneau, vice president of the Illinois Coal Association, is less gloomy. "There definitely have been plan- for new projects that have been put on hold" because of the new reclamation requirements, he says. "But essentially that's because of uncertainties over the selling of the coal" in a slack energy market, "not because of uncertainties over land reclamation."
It should be remembered that every new reclamation requirement going back to 1962 has been damned as the doom of strip mining in Illinois. In the 1980s to date, Illinois surface mines accounted for roughly 25 million tons of coal per year—pretty lively digging for a corpse. ●