Department of Interior

Recommendations and Actions

DOI02: Redefine Federal Oversight of Coal Mine Regulation


Both mine regulation and reclamation of abandoned mine lands are structured by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) to permit states to assume primary responsibility for their programs while reserving an oversight role for the federal government. However, the state-federal relationship is strained, and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) within the Department of the Interior (DOI), which performs the oversight function, suffers from management and organizational problems.

Changes in the mining law and regulation, reorganizing OSM and restructuring the fedral oversight role could result in improved performance, and greater fiscal savings in administering abandoned mine reclamation funds.

The federal oversight role should take maximum advantage of states' expertise in mine regulation developed since SMCRA was passed. Instead, the intergovernmental relationship is a source of friction between state and federal regulators. A recent study concluded that, while a certain level of conflict is inherent in any oversight relationship, "the frustration gap between federal and state inspectors in this policy area is far wider than one might expect."[Endnote 1]

Federal and state inspectors traditionally have favored different enforcement styles. Generally, state inspectors tend to use an accommodating style with coal companies, while federal inspectors commonly adhere to a strict compliance style. [Endnote 2] Despite differing styles, both state and federal regulators consider themselves environmentalists but apparently disagree on how to reach environmental goals.

While states are uncomfortable with aggressive federal oversight, environmental groups believe that active federal oversight is essential and that the federal regulatory system needs to "...accomplish the goals of SMCRA while reducing intergovernmental conflicts and misallocation of resources.''[Endnote 3]

With regard to state responsibility, SMCRA authorizes states to adopt their own programs regulating the environmental effects of coal mining. States submit programs to the Secretary of the Interior for approval and, if approved, states are granted primacy (the term primacy refers to primary, as opposed to exclusive, responsibility for a program). The federal government retains oversight responsibility carried out by OSM.

If a state's program either fails or is not approved, a federal regulatory program run by OSM must be implemented in that state. It is in a state's interest to assume primacy for coal mining regulation because only those states with primacy are eligible to receive AML grants. State primacy is in the federal government's interest because state programs are less expensive to operate than federal programs. Tennessee is the only major coal mining state that does not have primacy.

A basic problem is to determine the proper scope and focus of oversight efforts. Federal oversight under SMCRA is frequently criticized for focusing on strict compliance with the rules rather than on success in meeting the environmental goals of the law. For example, in the area of mine reclamation, the federal government keeps track of the number of sites reclaimed regardless of the environmental importance of these sites. The federal government has not established measurable goals or evaluation criteria for environmental results.

According to the study cited above, the federal-state relationship might be improved if federal staff "communicated their common desire to achieve qualitative on-the-ground environmental results, rather than merely quantitatively monitoring state enforcement efforts.''[Endnote 4] What is needed is an evaluation system that identifies effective performance in meeting environmental goals.

Once such a system is established, DOI will have objective criteria with which to propose to Congress a new distribution formula for AML funds. The current formula is largely based on the amount of coal currently mined in each state rather than on the number of abandoned mine sites requiring reclamation. This results in allocating a large proportion of available funds to certain western states with relatively small reclamation needs. A formula based on reclamation needs and program goals would make better use of available funds.

A second concern is how to structure OSM to perform a more effective oversight role. Since SMCRA's inception, the number of coal mines has dropped significantly (about 6,200 in 1976 to about 4,100 in 1988), and most states have assumed primacy. However, the number of federal employees involved in the surface mine program has not significantly declined.

A recent congressional staff report questioned both field-central office staffing ratios and geographical location of field offices. While it is clear that a reorganization of OSM, with a likely reduction of personnel, is in order, organizational changes can most effectively be made in concert with the revision of the office's oversight role and establishment of national goals and standards for mining regulation and reclamation.

Although AML grants provide most funding for mine reclamation, a related grant program, the AML emergency program, addresses urgent problems such as mudslides and mine fires that occur outside planned reclamation schedules. Emergencies are most common in Appalachia, with most high-cost projects occurring in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Although emergencies have traditionally been a federal responsibility, many states are assuming responsibility for managing their own programs. Nine states, including Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have not yet done so.

Congress, concerned that certain states were taking advantage of the separate emergency funding pool to supplement their reclamation funds, added appropriations bill language beginning in fiscal year 1992 that capped an individual state's share at 25 percent of the appropriation. This solution limited spending in the highest spending states but generated carryover of appropriated funds in all others. A better solution is to require states to take over their emergency programs and do away with separate funding of the emergency program.

The Rural Abandoned Mine Program (RAMP) is a related mine reclamation program funded by AML funds but administered by the Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Administration of the RAMP program duplicates existing state capabilities to administer mine reclamation programs. Merging all AML funding into a consolidated grant, and building on the simplified grant program already in effect, would permit states to take greater responsibility and increase flexibility in prioritizing their needs, while also substantially reducing federal administrative costs.


1. OSM, in consultation with state mining regulators, should develop national standards of excellence for regulatory and AML programs, establishing goals, performance measures, and a process for evaluation of effective performance.

Oversight should be changed from a quantitative to a qualitative approach, directed toward preventing environmental harm and assessing progress in meeting the objectives of the law. This project should be completed and new procedures should be implemented by October 1994, the beginning of federal fiscal year 1995.

2. Once this project is completed, DOI should propose legislation to revise the distribution formula for AML grants based on program goals and state performance.

3. By January 1995, OSM should review its organizational structure based on the review of its oversight role and submit a plan to close or downsize offices with declining workloads, eliminate unnecessary management levels, and adjust its field and Washington staffing ratio.

4. The Secretary of the Interior should persuade the State of Tennessee to submit its proposed regulatory programs to DOI, as a first step toward assuming primacy.

This will strengthen its commitment toward primacy and provide greater efficiencies in program operations.

5. Future appropriation bills should remove language requiring "per state limits"on AML emergency funds. States should be required to assume responsibility for administering their AML emergency programs.

6. The SMCRA should be amended so that the Rural Abandoned Mine Program is administered by the states.

7. Grant funding for reclamation should be in the form of consolidated grants, building on the existing simplified grant program, with states given the responsibility for establishing reclamation priorities.


Distribution of AML grants to meet priority reclamation needs is a contentious political issue reflecting a conflict between eastern and western states. The existing distribution formula, largely based on the amount of coal currently mined in any state rather than on priority reclamation needs, favors western states. Establishment of a system of goals and performance measures could provide an objective basis for proposing a restructuring of the distribution formula to better meet environmental goals.

OSM, Facts about Coal in Tennessee (Tennessee's private coal association), and the Governor of Tennessee support primacy for Tennessee. If primacy were approved, Tennessee could begin receiving AML grants.

Changes in the administration of RAMP will be controversial because Congress favors keeping RAMP in the current SCS district structure rather than having it run by the states.


Assumption of primacy by Tennessee will save an estimated $3 million per year beginning in fiscal year 1996.

RAMP administrative costs are capped at 15 percent of the program. The program cost is just under $13.4 million, so $2 million per year would be saved by moving program funds to AML grants for administration by the states.

Savings in the range of $2-3 million per year will occur if the remaining states take over their emergency programs and OSM closes or downsizes offices with declining workloads.

These estimates are based on cost savings gained through consolidating grant programs and transferring more responsibility to the state level. Additional savings, both in dollars and in full-time equivalents (FTE), will be generated from the review of the federal oversight role, which should eliminate duplication of functions, and from the reorganization of OSM.

	   Budget Authority (BA) and Outlays 
		 (Dollars in Millions) 
 Fiscal Year
		1994	1995	1996  1997	1998  1999  Total
 BA		0.0	0.0  	-7.0  	-7.0  	-7.0  	-7.0  	-28.0
 Outlays	0.0	0.0  	-7.0  	-7.0  	-7.0  	-7.0   28.0
 Change in 
 FTEs		  0	   0 	   0	   0 	   0 	   0 	   0


1. Scheberle, Denise, "In the Eye of the Beholder: State and Federal Perceptions about the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act Enforcement" in Uday Desai, ed., Moving the Earth, Cooperative Federalism and Implementation of the Surface Mining Act (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), p. 209.

2. Ibid., p. 210.

3. McElfish, James M., and Ann E. Beier, Environmental Regulation of Coal Mining, SMCRA's Second Decade (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute, 1990), p. 29.

4. Scheberle, p. 212.

Return To Report Index

Who We Are |||Latest Additions |||Initiatives |||Customer Service |||News Room |||Accomplishments |||Awards |||"How To" Tools |||Library |||Web Links

Reinvention Comments
Technical Comments