Pennsylvania’s Coal Operators; Managing a Legacy as Environmental Leaders

Pennsylvania’s Mine Reclamation program is exemplary among states and looked to as a model.

Historically, coal has been a fossil fuel pillar of the United States. It powered the Industrial Revolution and multiple wars and propelled the expansion of the United States as both an energy source and as a resource for products such as steel.

While the formation of mining practices were in their infancy, the rapid growth and the country’s high demand took precedence causing a legacy of effects on the environment.

In 1977, the Federal Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act was enacted to address these legacy effects. Since then, coal companies have paid a tax on the coal mined – currently, 28 cents per ton for surface coal mined and 12 cents per ton for underground coal mined. This money goes into a federally administered fund and is returned to the states under a statutorily-designed formula.

Since the inception of this tax, Pennsylvania coal operators alone have paid almost $600 million into the fund. Because the distribution formula is based on historical coal production trends that favor states like Pennsylvania with a long heritage of coal mining, the total dollar amount Pennsylvania has received from the fund within this time span exceeds $1.1 billion. This money is used toward addressing environmental impacts and returning previously mined lands back to sound natural habitats; in many cases to an even healthier state than they began.

From this program alone, to date, 67,211 acres of previously abandoned mine lands have been fully recovered in Pennsylvania at no cost to the Commonwealth or its taxpayers.

John Stilley, President of Amerikohl Mining on Mine Land Reclamation

In addition to the 1977 Federal Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act, reclamation efforts are also carried out as a part of contemporary mining procedures and through state reclamation and remining programs in Pennsylvania.

The importance of coal in today’s energy environment has not changed. However the evolution of mining practices have dramatically shifted the way this fossil fuel is produced. Through industry collaboration and best practices and working with environmental and safety officials, the United States has become a leader in mine production protocols. While these companies were not responsible for the legacy effects of past generations, their programs and current taxes paid work to address the previous environmental effects.

The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance (PCA) works with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental ​​Protection (DEP) each year to recognize companies who have performed above and beyond the federal and state regulations which require returning coal mining sites to environmentally sound condition with productive uses. (Read about the 2014 winners here.)

PCA’s award-winning sites are chosen in cooperation with the DEP’s Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations using an evaluation process based on pre-mining condition, reclamation quality, landowner satisfaction and compliance with the Commonwealth’s stringent environmental regulations. These fully restored sites return the land to natural habitats, forests and waterways.

Because these programs rely on the well-being of the coal companies responsible for performing the remining and reclamation efforts, any shift in the demand for coal directly affects these initiatives. Unfortunately, according to PA DEP, the EPA’s currently proposed Greenhouse Gas Regulations under the “Clean Power Plan” will force a 70 percent reduction in the use of coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania. Because 80 percent of the bituminous coal mined in Pennsylvania is for the direct-use of electric power generation, this reduction will carry over to the amount of coal mined and viability of these companies.

"All Pennsylvania mining companies are driven by a strong commitment to long-term environmental stewardship,” said PCA CEO John Pippy. "It is my hope that the EPA adjusts its proposed rules so that these industry leaders who have established responsible practices dedicated to reclamation efforts are able to continue to do business in Pennsylvania.”

Robindale Energy Services, Inc., recipient of a Governor’s 2014 Award for Environmental Excellence

Robindale received the recognition for a waste coal reclamation and clean-up project located near Saltsburg, PA. The 46.6 acre site is located within the Loyalhanna Creek Watershed and previously consisted of 18.6 acres of abandoned refuse piles scattered throughout the area with little to no vegetation existing. During the 18-month reclamation project, nine Robindale employees and thirty-five contracted truck drivers worked to remove approximately 305,097 tons of waste coal, restore the site to its original contour, and revegetate all disturbed areas. This effort has produced positive surface runoff, eliminated acidic runoff to the streams, and enhanced the scenic beauty of the site which is bisected by a Westmoreland County Rails to Trails pathway.