Environmental concerns are an important part of all mining in Wyoming, and complying with environmental regulations is a top priority for all of our state’s mines. Wyoming mines are required to restore the land once mining operations have been completed. This process is called reclamation.
Surface Mine Reclamation
The reclamation process for all surface mining—including coal, bentonite, and trona—is very similar. When mining begins, the top soil—the top layer of fertile soil in which plants grow—is removed and saved for later use. The overburden—the soil that covers the mineral—is also removed and saved.
Once mining operations are finished, buildings and equipment are removed and the overburden is used to fill in the holes left by mining, and the land is contoured to match the original topography. Then the top soil is added, along with natural grasses, shrubs, and rock piles. These rock piles create natural habitat for animals and encourage them to return to the area.
To date, almost 50% of all land in Wyoming disturbed by coal mining has been reclaimed or is in the process of being reclaimed. The remaining land consists of active mine sites, facilities, and stockpiles.
Reclamation is Strictly Monitored
Surface coal mines follow strict laws and work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ), Office of Surface Mining (OSM), Game and Fish, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Surface coal mining is governed by a law called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act or SMCRA, which was passed in 1977. The law’s main purpose is to establish how surface coal mines must reclaim the ground that is removed during mining.
Wildlife benefit from the abundant vegetation on reclaimed mines. Today, large herds of deer and antelope live on all Powder River Basin Coal Mines, and a flourishing and growing herd of elk, called the Rochelle Hills herd, has started to spend winters on the productive reclaimed coal mining land in the area.
Many other types of birds and small mammals, such as owls, eagles, fox, rabbits, and even muskrats, can be observed daily at Wyoming coal mines. These animals use a variety of habitats for protection including the large rocks added during the reclamation process.
Awards & Achievements
Wyoming mines have made a commitment to the environment demonstrated by award-winning reclamation. The Excellence in Surface Coal Mining Award is given by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement each year to “those responsible for the nation’s most outstanding achievements in environmentally sound surface mining and reclamation.” Several Wyoming coal mines have won this award since the program started in 1986.
In Wyoming, most uranium mining is performed in-situ—in place—which doesn’t cause much surface disturbance. In-situ mining involves using a water and baking soda mixture to unlock the uranium from the rock so it can be pumped to the surface. This area is called a leach field.
Once the uranium has been recovered from an area, all of the water in the leach field is removed by performing a “groundwater sweep.” This removes any contaminated water and allows clean, natural groundwater to replace it. Any contaminated water is treated and used for irrigation.
Any areas of the surface that had been disturbed are then planted with native vegetation.