Domestic coal use has increased more than 80% since the Clean Air Act passed in 1970. In spite of the increased usage of coal, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recorded decreases for smog, lead, carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide. Those are the six pollutants for which the federal government has set national standards. This is good news for every one of us because it means we are breathing cleaner, healthier air.

The Clean Air Act is one of, if not the, toughest national air quality laws in the world. It was enacted in 1970 and provides strict requirements for preventing and controlling major air pollutants. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1977 imposed strict requirements limiting sulfur dioxide emissions from coal facilities. The emission of particulates from coal-fired power plants also has strict limitations. Particulates include particles of dust, smoke, and ash smaller than 10 microns (one micron is about 1/25,000th of an inch). The Clean Air Act was amended again in 1990 to strengthen the existing requirements and to expand the restrictions for urban air pollution, automobile emissions, air toxics, and acid deposition. The 1990 requirements are being phased in as we approach the year 2000.

The coal that is mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming has a low sulfur content, which means that the electric utilities that buy it don't have the extra expense of always needing to use chemical "scrubbers" (flue gas desulfurization systems) to clean up their emissions. The coal also has a low ash content, which helps the utility companies comply with the particulate emissions restrictions. The coal mines themselves also monitor and restrict particulate emissions, including dust. They run water trucks on the haul roads during daily operations to curtail dust.


The Clean Water Act sets restrictions for discharges of coal mine water. Permits must be obtained, and coal mine companies must monitor, sample, and analyze the water and give the information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other authorities. Hydrologists document how sedimentation from the mined areas will be controlled and how they will protect ground water and surface water. The water system balance cannot be disturbed, and any water discharged during mining must comply with strict standards. Coal mines must control sediment runoff to prevent erosion and to prevent chemically changing area streams. A sedimentation pond is used to reduce sediment leaving the mine site, by allowing the sediment to settle out into the bottom of the pond before the water flows downstream.


The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 is based on one basic principal: coal mining is a temporary land use. The law requires that surface-mined land must be returned to a condition matching or improving its original use. In many cases the Powder River Coal Company makes improvements to the land with the advice and approval of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The mines are inspected every month by the DEQ, and they are required to file annual reports outlining what activities have taken place on the mine site during the year.

Nationwide, over two million acres of mined lands have been reclaimed and returned to productive uses in the past fifteen years. This is more land than the entire state of Delaware. Reclamation is a major part of the coal mining operation. Powder River Coal Company, as well as other surface coal mining companies, work on the principle that every inch of land that is disturbed in the mining process will be restored to as good or better condition when they have finished mining the area.

Like all other surface coal mines, Powder River Coal Company is required to obtain many federal, state, and local government permits. Engineers at the mines conduct surveys and analyze the site. Any archeological artifacts are also protected. When the engineers survey a site for future mining and locate archeological artifacts, they must then investigate the site to determine if there is anything there with a possible historical significance. If they feel the site is possibly significant, a more detailed investigation is performed. The Historical Preservation Act requires that any sites with artifacts over thirty years old must be investigated to see if there is anything of historical value or significance.

Among archeological artifacts found at Rawhide Coal Mine was the fossilized skeletal remains of a Champsosaurus, an animal resembling a crocodile. It had a bony plate with scoots, or scales on the skin surface. Also found was a possible buffalo jump site that appears to have been about 300 years old. There was evidence of a kill site where processing of the buffalo occurred, as well as an encampment of some kind. A human skull and other bones were also found. An archeologist was brought in to properly collect and wrap the bones, and they were given to the Arapaho Nation for repatriation and burial.

One part of reclamation is the replanting of vegetation after mining is completed. Mother Nature has sorted out certain species of plant life for different areas of land based on the area's topography, soil, and climate. The coal mines try to copy Mother Nature, but at times, with the permission of federal, state, and local authorities, the reclaimed land will be different. However, the land will be just as useful and productive as it was before it was disturbed. There are basically five different types of vegetation in the Powder River Basin. The majority of the area are grasslands, followed by shrub grasslands containing some shrubs. There are areas with islands of sage brush, and an area called a playa, with large closed basins that hold a small amount of water. The playa is not a pond but resembles a wetland, except by the end of summer it dries up. The fifth type of vegetation is a Riparian mix, 50 to 100 feet on both sides of creeks or streams.

There are strict federal regulations dealing with drainage and streams, also called alluvial valley floors. These regulations require surveys and investigations into whether the area should be mined and how it should be reclaimed. If it is mined, the stream must be returned to its pre-mining condition, including elevation, shape or twists and turns, and the alluvial material must be replaced. At North Antelope Coal Mine, Porcupine Creek runs through the mine site and is considered an alluvial valley floor. Porcupine Creek has low spots that hold water, but the stream only flows in the spring and early summer. After permits were obtained, an area 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep was stripped of its alluvial material and stockpiled separately from other topsoil. The area was mined and the alluvial material was replaced. Trees and a Riparian seed mixture were used to replant the area and return it to its pre-mining condition.

Before an area can be mined, several surveys are conducted. With the help of government authorities and environmentalists, a reclamation decision is made as to whether or not the land can be improved to become more useful and productive. The land is always returned to the same or better condition. Vegetation is replanted, and every tree must be replaced with another tree. Even rocks and dead trees are placed on a reclaimed area to provide animal habitat and perching for birds.


Powder River Basin coal mines provide a kind of refuge for wildlife. Besides creating animal habitat with rocks and dead trees, the coal mines protect the animals that are living on the mine site. The mines are home to many animals, including antelope, deer, rabbits, coyotes, foxes, ground squirrels, hawks, eagles, and other birds. Employees at the mines believe that the deer and antelope move onto the mine site during hunting season because they know they are safe, as no hunting is allowed. On the haul roads or anywhere on the mine site, animals have the right-of-way.

The coal companies do everything that can be done to protect the wildlife living on or near the mine site. Golden Eagles, listed as an Endangered Species, have been observed nesting at Caballo Coal Mine since 1976. The nest was in a large cottonwood tree in an area that was scheduled for mining, so it had to be relocated in 1980. Working with the help and approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), as well as Howard and Bonnie Postovit of Powder River Eagle Studies, the Caballo environmentalists designed a man-made mobile platform with a nest resembling the eagle's own nest in the tall tree. The eagles hatched one chick in their nest but it died, so the USFWS found a foster chick and placed it in the platform nest. The pair of eagles moved to the other nest and adopted the chick. Over a week's time, the nest was slowly moved one-half mile to a new location outside of the planned and permitted mining area. A few years later the nest was once again moved with no problems, and the eagles have fledged several healthy chicks over the past sixteen years. The eagles have been observed and monitored, and there have been no adverse effects from any of the mining activities.

Return to Powder River Coal Company Homepage.