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FAQ – Coal Mine Reclamation Program

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  3. FAQ – Coal Mine Reclamation Program
Is there coal in New Mexico?

The demonstrated coal reserve base in New Mexico is 4.65 billion tons, or about 1 percent of the national reserves. There are over a dozen coal fields in the state, most of which have been mined at one time or another since the mid-nineteenth century. Right now all of the state’s production comes from the San Juan Basin.

Is coal a valuable commodity?

Over 14 million tons of coal was produced from New Mexico coal mines in 2019. Most of the production goes to electrical generation at power stations in New Mexico and Arizona. Coal is the most valuable mineral commodity mined in the New Mexico creating more jobs and revenues to the state and counties than any other mineral commodity. Annual production values exceed $500,000,000. The mines employ over 1,200 people with an annual payroll of over $90,000,000.

Where does coal come from?

Coal is a sedimentary rock formed over millions of years from plant material deposited in prehistoric swamps. Coal resources in the San Juan Basin, for example, are of the late Cretaceous Age (138 million years ago). For more information, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Minerals Resources has excellent publications available on coal resources of New Mexico.

What kind of coal do we have in New Mexico?

The main coal-bearing strata are the Mesa Verde and Fruitland formations in the San Juan Basin and the Raton and Vermejo formations in the Raton area. San Juan Basin coal generally ranges from sub-bituminous A to high volatile bituminous C. Bituminous coal burns hotter (11,500 to 13,000 BTU) than the sub-bituminous varieties (8,300 to 11,500 BTU).

How many coal mines are in New Mexico?

There are nine permitted coal mines in New Mexico. Three mines, Navajo, San Juan Underground, and El Segundo are producing as of 2019. Please visit the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Annual Reports for the Mining and Minerals Division section on actively producing coals mines. The Navajo coal mine is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation; the federal Office of Surface Mining, not the State of New Mexico, permits this mine. Visit our Coal Mines Web Map for additional information.

What's in a coal mining permit?

There are three main parts of a surface coal mining permit application: Legal, financial, compliance and related information.

An applicant must provide information on who owns the mining company and will conduct mining. Included is a detailed description of the corporation, affiliated corporations and the parent corporation. The Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Department of the Interior, established the Applicator Violation System that uses this information to identify “bad actors” and prohibit them from operating a coal mine anywhere in the U.S. This part of the permit also identifies all landowners of surface or mineral estates, any other permits and licenses that may be needed (NPDES, MSHA, etc.) and documentation that the applicant has a right-of-entry or leases to conduct mining.

Background on existing environmental conditions
A permit must contain detailed information about the nature of the environment prior to mining. This includes sections on hydrology, both surface and groundwater, geology, topography, climate, vegetation, soils, fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, and current, pre-mining land use. There are specific requirements for what types of information are required. For example under vegetation, an applicant must collect:

  • A comprehensive listing of species by plant community
  • Ground cover, frequency and constancy values for each species (herbaceous, tree and shrub)
  • Acreages for each community correlated to soils, slope and aspect.
  • All of this information is collected over two growing seasons.

A reclamation and operations plan
The purpose for collecting the environmental information is to develop a reclamation plan that will reconstruct as many of the pre-mining conditions as possible. The reclamation plan includes an approved post-mining land use and topography, replacement of topsoil, the type of vegetation (seed mix) needed to meet post-mining land uses, and any special mitigation that may be needed to prevent toxic or acid-forming materials from affecting the long-term viability of the final reclamation.

The operation plan sets forth a process by which coal will be mined and all the requirements of the reclamation plan are implemented. Unlike any other type of mining reclamation, coal mine reclamation is contemporaneous with the removal of coal. There are strict provisions that limit the amount of disturbance without corresponding reclamation.

How are coal mining permits approved?

When an application is received by MMD it undergoes an in-depth review to ensure that all of the elements are present, correct and in the prescribed detail. MMD works with the applicant until the application is administratively complete. At that time the public is notified and has the opportunity to review and comment on the application. Public hearings may be held and additional technical issues are typically addressed.

Upon completion of the public comment period, the Director will make a decision on the disposition of a permit. If it is judged to be approvable, the operator must submit a bond which is based on a calculation of what it would cost MMD to complete reclamation should the operator go out of business or not meet the requirements of their permit. The regulations specify that a bond adequate to carry out reclamation must be held for no less than ten years after the last seeding is performed and specific performance standards have been met based on a post-mining land use. For example, criteria for the amount of ground cover, production, diversity and shrub reestablishment as specified in a permit. Once the bond instrument is in place, the permit can be approved. Getting from a new application to the Director’s decision can take up to a year or more depending on the quality of the submittal.

The regulation includes provisions for appealing a permitting decision. This ensures that the public interest is protected.

What goes on during the life of a coal mining operation?

At a minimum, most of the permitted coal mines have a life of about 20 years for the smaller mines and 30 to 50 years for the larger ones. During this time MMD relies on a series of performance standards and the permit to inspect and enforce all operations, and violations can be written on infractions of the rules or permit. Inspections are conducted on a monthly basis that review how well the mine is following its operation and reclamation plans.

With one exception (Navajo Mine), all the permits are renewed every five years. A renewal is similar to a new application, except that a mine has a right of successive renewal unless an opponent can show the Director that the original permit was improvidently issued. The purpose of renewals is to update permits and fine tune issues associated with operation or reclamation planning. More often permits will undergo minor changes that do not go through a public notice process. MMD completes about 50 to 75 modifications for its mines every year.

What is bond release?

Since reclamation is contemporaneous, the bonds are recalculated every few years and are adjusted as necessary. As reclamation is completed permittees can also apply for phased bond releases. Phase I credits completion of backfilling and grading by establishment of an approved post-mining topography. Phase II recognizes revegetation success and evaluates the performance standards for successful revegetation included in the permit. A bond can be reduced upon the Director’s approval of a bond release application. Final bond release, Phase III, documents that the permittee has waited 10 years and has demonstrated to the Director that the reclaimed lands can support the post-mining land use, which is grazing in most cases. The final bond is released and the permit is terminated.