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Abandoned Mine Lands

The Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Section is responsible for administering abandoned mine reclamation projects that are funded by federal grants derived from a tax on coal under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).  The AMR Fund Flow Chart illustrates the distribution coal tax funds.  AML project managers are responsible for large, individual operating budgets for many reclamation projects. The AML staff also manages a growing volume of public files, maps and other information related to Montana's abandoned mines.

Big Ox Mill Site, Lewis and Clark County, 2004, one year after reclamation.
Big Ox Mill Site, Lewis and Clark County, 2004, one year after reclamation.

On December 27, 1989, Montana's Governor, Stan Stephens certified to the United States Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining that the state had addressed all of its high priority coal-related reclamation problems which were eligible for funding under SMCRA. Montana was then approved to use SMCRA funding for reclamation of mines other than coal mines. The restoration of lands affected by non-coal mining began in 1990 and continues today in conjunction with non-coal related problems as they are identified.

If SMCRA funds are to be used for a reclamation project, the site must be eligible under the strict criteria of federal law. To be eligible for SMCRA funding, sites to be reclaimed must have been mined or affected by mining processes and abandoned or left in an inadequate reclamation status prior to August 3, 1977, (or prior to August 28, 1974, for U.S. Forest Service-administered lands; or prior to November 26, 1980, for U.S. Bureau of Land Management administered lands) .

SMCRA-funded sites can only be those that are truly abandoned--where there is no one who can be held responsible for the needed reclamation. One statutory eligibility criteria is that there must be no continuing reclamation responsibility under state or federal laws on the part of owners, operators, or others connected to past mining operations on the site. Also, a proposed SMCRA reclamation site cannot be within an area that has been designated for remedial action under the federal uranium control law or under the federal Superfund law.

In limited instances, coal mining sites that were operated after 1977 until November 24, 1990, may be eligible for SMCRA-funded reclamation. These are situations where funds available from a bond, financial guarantee or other source were insufficient for adequate reclamation. Also, some sites may benefit from SMCRA funds if a coal company surety became insolvent between August 4, 1977, and November 5, 1990, and the funds available from bankruptcy proceedings were not sufficient for adequate reclamation. Other than these two limited exceptions, a privately owned site must have been abandoned prior to August 3, 1977, to be reclaimed with SMCRA funds.

AML technical staff includes professionals of all relevant scientific disciplines, including geology, hydrology, cartography, biology and archaeology. A few of these professionals are even experts at all of the previous disciplines.  These trained people develop and manage several large reclamation projects across Montana each year. DEQ attorneys provide legal counsel and interpretations of state and federal mining statutes and other environmental laws that affect the reclamation program. One attorney is housed with the abandoned mine reclamation staff to advise on legal issues, oversee the contracting and bidding process, and make SMCRA eligibility determinations for proposed abandoned mine reclamation projects.

Mine remediation activities involve interpretation and implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended to preserve cultural and historic resources. Therefore, all sites under the purview of this Bureau may be evaluated for cultural or historic features eligible for historical preservation. Historical preservation activities are conducted in cooperation with the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) to assess eligibility and to develop and implement mitigation plans.

To date, Montana has addressed many long-abandoned mine and mill sites on both private and public lands. Before they were reclaimed, these old mines and mills with rotting, unsafe structures and large adits or openings in the ground endangered people and animals. Many were also seriously degrading Montana's environment. Now they have been reclaimed and revegetated. Indeed, today it would be difficult to tell that some of these restored Montana lands were ever disturbed. Structures that could be stabilized and made safe were left in place as historic artifacts for the benefit of the public. These sites remain as an important place for people to view and reflect on Montana' s mining history.

Although much has been done, much remains to be addressed. AML is working to reclaim Montana's mine lands to help ensure a productive future for the state and to bring its land back to life.