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History of Coal Mining and Regulation in Ohio

Coal Mining History

Coal mining in Ohio began around 1800 and during its first 150 years, was an unregulated industry.

Underground coal mining. Until the time of World War I, coal mining in Ohio was conducted almost exclusively underground and largely by manual labor. These underground mining operations gained access to coal seams by vertical mine shafts of up to 200 feet deep, by horizontal mine entries (drift entries) cut into hillsides at the coal elevation, or by sloping tunnels angling downward from the ground surface. Early underground mines were small, discontinuous, and poorly mapped. To maximize coal production, roof support was usually minimal. Further, coal pillars were often removed upon abandonment of the mines, making them highly prone to later subsidence.

Surface coal mining. With the advent of large, efficient excavating equipment, new drilling techniques, and newly developed explosives in the mining industry around World War II, large earthmoving operations became possible. Surface mining operations thus became an economic alternative to underground mining. Surface mining involves excavation of all of the rock and soil (overburden) above the desired coal seam, exposing the coal seam at the surface. The excavated rock and soil, known as “mine spoil,” is placed in piles away from the excavation site. The exposed coal is removed in a way that includes as little non-coal rock as possible.

Longwall mining. A very efficient recovery system of underground coal mining, known as longwall mining, was introduced into Ohio due to the development of automated mining equipment. The technique involves total removal of large blocks of coal which allows the overburden to collapse or subside in a controlled and predictable manner. This technique has significantly increased productivity and reduced costs so that underground mining can remain competitive with surface mining. It has the added benefit of allowing mitigation of subsidence impacts to occur while the mining company is still operating in the vicinity, rather than years after mining is complete.

Coal Mining Regulation History

Ohio’s first state law regulating coal mining, the Strip Coal Mining Act, became effective in 1947. This law required Ohio mine operators to have a state-issued license and, to ensure that reclamation would be performed, to pay a bond of $100.00 for each acre of land mined. In 1949, a strengthened version of this law created the Division of Reclamation within the Department of Agriculture. Early surface reclamation requirements were much less strict than the requirements in place today. The early versions of the surface mining laws in Ohio were refined and strengthened throughout the next three decades. Gradually, reclamation bonds were increased and requirements for the success of revegetation and for the restriction of off-site pollution were tightened. In 1959, the Division of Reclamation transferred from the Department of Agriculture to Department of Natural Resources. 

In 1972, a far-reaching revision of the strip mine law took effect in Ohio. This law required regrading of the mine spoil to approximate pre-mining contour of the land, replacement of topsoil, and the establishment of a successful vegetation cover by the mine operator prior to the State’s release of reclamation bond. When this law was passed, it was the most comprehensive strip mine law in the nation.

The first Ohio law governing underground coal mining went into effect in 1949, requiring miners to close or fence all surface openings to underground mines abandoned after June 1941. In 1981, this law was made more stringent in order to remain in compliance with Federal law. Underground mines are now regulated by Division of Mineral Resources Management, and have reclamation requirements similar to those for surface mines.

The Federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. On August 3, 1977, the United States Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). This Act established stringent national standards for coal mining and reclamation. SMCRA created the federal Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE).

Because of the diverse mining conditions in the United States, Congress intended that the states become the primary regulator. Each state proposes its own laws and regulations for the mining industry. These laws and regulations must meet or exceed federal standards and are subject to approval by the Secretary of the Interior. This procedure allows individual states to gain primacy control over the regulation of surface mining. The Secretary of the Interior approved Ohio’s regulatory and AML programs in 1982.