For centuries, coal mining in mountainous terrain, such as Appalachia, has been done under ground. This underground mining has left a legacy of death, broken bodies, and disease from accidents and working conditions. Yet, there never has been a shortage of miners available to do the work and the nation has grown on the energy supplied by coal.
In about the 1930s in the U.S., surface mining started to become widespread. It was called "strip mining" in Appalachia, because it stripped away the soil overlying the coal (overburden) or "contour mining" because it followed the contour of a mountain, cutting away as much overburden as was economical. The health and safety impacts to workers were much less than with underground mining, but the adverse effects above-ground on vegetation, water, wildlife, and the health of nearby residents were greatly increased. States began to pass laws to regulate surface mining, but they largely were ineffective for multiple reasons, not the least of which concerned state revenues, votes, and general economic issues. Following extensive growth in surface mining, the U.S. Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 that sought to bring order to surface mining and reduce adverse effects, while allowing for the continued production of coal.
Among the provisions of SMCRA, as it became known, was a requirement that strip mines be reclaimed as mining progressed, with the surface being restored to "approximate original contour." That latter provision proved to be popular with environmental, recreation, and aesthetic interests. It was problematic for municipalities and developers, who were seeking more land on which homes and business could be built. Many sought waivers from the regulations so that individual projects could be carried out, which brings us to what this posting is all about.