North Dakota has the strongest law in the United States on restoration of mined farmland, but the state Supreme Court’s recent Coal Lake ruling threatens to make it a dead letter.
The court upheld the Public Service Commission’s decision that recreation was a “higher and better” use for 86 acres of mined land than raising crops.
The coal companies think up these alternatives and so far the PSC has given its blessing to all of them – golf courses, dirt bike tracks, shooting ranges, waste disposal pits. Adding these to what’s considered a “higher and better” use exempts the coal company from meeting farm productivity standards.Falkirk Mine had not gained bond release on a single acre of agricultural land for 35 years when they applied for the Coal Lake change – a fact the administrative law judge prevented from being entered into the hearing record.
It was like giving a good performance review to an employee who does nothing but call in sick.
Back in the 1970’s there was a vigorous in-state debate over whether strip mining should even be allowed in North Dakota.
There was consensus that mined land must be returned to full agricultural productivity, and North Dakota passed a law requiring 100% of pre-mining productivity on all mined land used for agriculture – which was nearly all of it.
Legislative leaders understood that coal was a one-time harvest, and that agriculture was the state’s bread and butter. We couldn’t afford to trade away wheat production for the entire 21st century and beyond in order to dig up coal for a single, temporary use.
The Coal Lake decision negates that logic and is an insult to farmers across the state.
It’s also an ominous precedent as North Dakota moves deeper into the oil boom.
There are no federal laws on reclamation of land used for oil installations. State law relies on bonds to assure that abandoned sites are cleaned up, but bond amounts are too puny to be effective.
State leaders have predicted up to 70,000 additional oil wells in North Dakota.
Counting just the well pad, that’s probably 300,000 acres of disturbed land, more than 469 sections, or about 13 townships—a good share of a county.
If our state has a good coal reclamation law but won’t enforce it, what are the prospects for farmers to make a living by farming and ranching after oil’s brief “One Time Harvest?”
Member of the Dakota Resource Council’s Board of Directors