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Strip-mine study: cleanup lagging

Can the coal industry effectively reclaim land that has been strip-mined? In the first major independent study of the issue since the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act was passed in 1977, Inform, a nonprofit research organization, says the United States coal industry "has yet to prove that it can fully reclaim the Western lands strip-mined to produce coal."

The coal industry hotly disputes the Inform findings. Typical of the industry reaction to the 450-page study was a comment from Leroy Balzer, director of environmental quality for Utah International, a subsidiary of General Electric, who notes, "We in the business are committed to putting this land back the way we found it, and we want to gain the credibility that we can do it."

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Larry Gralla, general manager of Amax Inc.'s Western coal division, adds: "Reclamation is a serious business as far as we are concerned. We are doing our best to follow the laws to the letter, both legally and morally."

According to Daniel Philip Wiener, the author of the Inform study, "doing our best" might not be enough. Mr. Wiener concludes from his 2 1/2-year study of some 15 Western strip mines that, "even of the most dedicated reclaimers in this report, the best that can be said at this point is, it is still too early to tell whether they can ever fully undo the damage their mining has wrought to Western land and water resources."

Among the findings in Mr. Wiener's report:

* All of the mines destroyed valuable grazing land or resulted in the loss or pollution of water supplies important to local ranchers and communities.

* At six of the mines in arid desert regions, it is doubtful if reclaimation can ever be fully successful, "even with the best practices." The report raises the question whether strip mining should be allowed "in such fragile environments."

* In the northern Plains states, coal operators have sacrificed land and water resources for the sake of high coal production.

* The best reclamation practice was carried out by Energy Fuels Company, which runs a 2,500-acre mine in Colorado; the worst was the Gascoyne Mine in North Dakota. The Gascoyne is operated by the Montana-Dakota Utilities Company and is the 16th-largest coal mine in the country. The company was not available for comment.

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Mr. Wiener's findings were not all bad. He discovered, in fact, that as a result of the strip-mining act, reclamation practices had been improved. He also found that state regulations varied widely, ranging from stringent in Montana to looser in Arizona.

As could be expeced, some companies devoted more time and resources to reclamation than others. The report says that at Energy Fuels, for example, attention to many details of the company's program, combined with a full staff of experts based at the mine site, "allows decisions to be made with the fullest and clearest grasp of teir consequences." The company has seeded 55 percent of the lands disturbed by mining and has controlled erosion. Energy Fuels also has one of the best records, Mr. Wiener says, in hauling back to topsoil, a basic ingredient in any reclamation project.

Some of the companies involved in coal mining disagree with the criticisms of their projects. For example, Mr. Wiener is critical of what he terms an erosion problem at the Amax Belle Ayre Mine in Wyoming. Mr. Gralla, however, contends the company does not have such a problem now. He points out that two years ago the company had a major flood, which caused some erosion, but says that since then erosion has been contained.

Mr. Balzer of Utah International also disagrees with the findings on his company's Navajo Mine, in New Mexico. The Inform study says the company used a "below average" mixture of seed to reclaim the land. Mr. Balzer counters that the company is using a "good mixture" which he says will last over the long term. He agrees with Mr. Wiener, however, that it still is too early to tell if the reclamation will be successful.

Inform says the study is not designed to be merely critical of the companies mining the coal but rather seeks to act as a "resource" for business, government , or community groups when they consider strip mining in their regions. President Carter hopes that by 1990 Western coal production can be expanded to 500 million tons annually, up from a current 194 million tons. Inform concludes: "In the rush to expand production, reclamation cannot be an afterthought."

Inform conducts research and education on the effects of American corporations on the environment, their employees, and consumers.

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