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Science & Environment

Western States Face Challenges Cleaning Up After Coal Mining

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Across the West, mining companies have dug up more than 500 square miles of land to access the coal seams underneath. If you were to look at a satellite image of these areas, you'd see the mines right away. They are big, gray rectangles. Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports on the difficult and expensive efforts to clean up and restore that land.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: The Antelope coal mine is one of a dozen open-pit coal mines dotting the prairie of eastern Wyoming, and it is vast. Blake Jones is an engineering manager with Cloud Peak Energy. He tries to provide some scale.

BLAKE JONES: To that bluff over there, it's about four miles.

JOYCE: The bluff is on the far side of the pit. The space in between is just a huge, gray void where a fleet of shovels and trucks scraped away hundreds of feet of dirt to get to the underlying coal seam. It's hard to imagine this spot ever looking like it did before, but turning away from the pit, Jones points to a grassy hill behind us.

JONES: We mined through this area three years ago.

JOYCE: As in through the hill. And then they put it back more or less like it was.

You built this hill.

JONES: Absolutely.

JOYCE: Cloud Peak literally moved a mountain, which is an expensive proposition. In Wyoming alone, what has already been mined is expected to cost more than $2 billion to clean up. And moving mountains back into place is just part of the cost. The rest - rebuilding an entire ecosystem. Jones says that starts with the plants.

JONES: Before we mine, the vegetation studies go through and document, what are the native species and what density? And we go back and redo that.

JOYCE: In Wyoming, the seed has to come from native grasses and flowers, plants that would have been here before mining started in the 1970s. And that's not the kind of thing you can buy at your local gardening store.

ROBERT KILLIAN: So this is our seed barn, what we call the seed barn.

JOYCE: This is the Bridger Plant Materials Center in south-central Montana. It's one of a handful of places run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that grows native plants and grasses for reclamation. Inside the office is Mark Majerus. He started working here decades ago when no one was growing native plants for reclamation.

MARK MAJERUS: Companies would go out and find a spot. And if it was a good seed year, then they would collect it and make that available to reclamation.

JOYCE: But hand-picking enough wild seeds to reclaim hundreds of square miles of mine lands wasn't practical. So over the next 40 years, Majerus says the center has developed farmable native grasses and flowers.

MAJERUS: It's problem solving, trying to figure out what species will work.

JOYCE: And what is economically viable. Today mine reclamation is much more scientific than it was in the past, and it fails less frequently. But Majerus says even with hundreds of millions of dollars, there's simply no way to artificially recreate the complexity of a native ecosystem.

MAJERUS: You're not going to put it back exactly as it was.

JOYCE: Under federal mining laws, land isn't considered reclaimed until plants have been growing for 10 years and groundwater is restored. For the vast majority of the land that's been mined in Wyoming, that is still a long ways off, which means reclamation is likely to be an industry going strong long after the coal mining is done. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce in Laramie, Wyo.

SIEGEL: That story came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.