Coal mining and reclamation in North Dakota
Final Bond Release
When the state’s reclamation laws were written in the 1970s, it was assumed that fully reclaimed land would be released from final bond (released from all mine control) in a timely manner after meeting reclamation standards. When land is released from final bond, there is a hearing so that the public can get information to see how well the mine has done its work. However, mining companies are holding onto land that has been fully reclaimed for 15 years and more.
The law states that companies can hold reclaimed land as long as it is necessary for the business of mining. This language is very vague and basically allows the companies to keep land indefinitely. One concern we have is that this could be a violation of the state’s anti-corporate farming law. The other problem with this practice is that there is no way for the public to have input on the reclamation process while it is still ongoing. In other words, if the land is held until the mine is inactive and all the land reclaimed, it is too late for the public to raise concerns about the reclamation process.
DRC believes that companies re hanging onto land is because there is no way for them to replace water sources. Aquifers typically run in the coal seams and are destroyed in the mining process. There are deeper aquifers, but drilling deep wells is costly and companies may be reluctant to start that practice. No one can live or run cattle in areas without water and as more land goes under the dragline, rural ‘coal country’ is looking more and more like a buffalo commons.
DRC introduced a study resolution in the 2002 legislative session asking that the state examine why bond release was not occurring at active mines. It was amended but it passed and was chosen for a study by the Interim Natural Resources Committee. No bills came out of the committee hearings, but the Public Service Commission, which oversees reclamation, is now asking companies to come forward annually on an informal basis to indicate which parcels they plan to release from bond in the coming year.
There is a paper trail from this process that DRC plans to make public, making the mines more accountable.
DRC recently had a small but very significant victory in the spring of 2005 when the Mercer County Planning Commission twice tabled an application for a large expansion for the Freedom Mine near Beulah, ND because of the mine’s shoddy treatment of a landowner. This was the first time that we are aware of that a county commission stood up to the industry. We feel that could signal the beginning of the erosion of industry control. A DRC member who serves on the commission was instrumental in advocating for this action.
By-passing the reclamation process
Another bond release concern involves alternative uses for reclaimed land. Recently, mines have begun creating recreational areas and wildlife areas, rather than returning land to farm or grazing land. This allows the mines to skirt the lengthy reclamation processes that are necessary to return land to its former productivity.
The latest version of this involved the possible siting of a large hog farrowing facility on 40 acres of mine-owned land that has not been fully reclaimed. Because there was a great deal of local concern about the siting of this hog factory--- DRC helped to turn out ninety-six people at an informational meeting in Center---investors in the project decided to try another site.
In September of 2009 news articles discussed reclaimed mining land being returned to agricultural uses. There has been little or no lands released from bond for agricultural uses. SMCRA requires that surface and groundwater must be replace prior to being released from bonds. The problem with this is that groundwater cannot be replaced in a few short years. It takes decades and possibly centuries to replace an aquifer.
The major mines in North Dakota coal Country, Center, Falkirk, Freedom, Glenherold, mines have released 0, yes ZERO acres back to into agricultural lands. 
IN THE NEWS:
-  N.D. mined land going back to farmers" The Bismarck Tribune, September 27, 2009
- http://www.thedickinsonpress.com/event/article/id/27672/] "N.D. mined land going back to farmers" The Dickinson Press, September 25, 2009
-  Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Title V Annual Evaluation Summary Report for the NORTH DAKOTA