Reclaimed North Dakota land once mined for coal will be returning to private ownership at a quicker pace, which may help ease criticism that the process has been delayed, state regulators said Monday.
The state Public Service Commission agreed last year to release 4,653 acres of reclaimed property from its bond coverage, statistics show. The bonds were worth almost $6.2 million to four mining companies.
The acreage represents more than one-fifth of the 20,916 acres made eligible for private use since 1970, said Jim Deutsch, director of the agency's abandoned mine lands division.
Coal mining companies must put up a bond or other assets to cover the estimated cost of restoring property that has been mined to its former use. Most land used for coal production in western North Dakota originally was used to grow crops, or as pasture land for cattle.
The Public Service Commission releases bond coverage on mined land once inspectors determine the property is at least as productive as it was before mining began. Once the coverage is lifted, the mining company's reclamation obligations are finished.
"Once the bond is released, that is what finally puts the land back in the hands of private landowners, whether it's a farmer or rancher or whoever it might be," said Kevin Cramer, chairman of the Public Service Commission.
Landowner activists and some state lawmakers have long questioned whether it has been taking too long for reclaimed land to be released from bond coverage.
During a study ordered by the North Dakota Legislature in 2003, coal company representatives insisted they quickly sought releases on land no longer needed for their mining operations.
Keeping reclaimed property under bond coverage ties up assets that can be used elsewhere, said Floyd Robb, a spokesman for Basin Electric Power Cooperative of Bismarck.
"Obviously, the longer that it sits there, that money cannot be used for other purposes," Robb said Monday. "That is not to our advantage."
A Basin subsidiary operated the Glenharold Mine near Stanton, in west-central North Dakota, which formerly supplied 3 million tons of lignite coal annually to Basin's Leland Olds electric power station.
The mine ceased producing coal in June 1993, and reclamation work was completed in 2000, Robb said. The mine covered about 10,000 acres, and about 2,700 acres remain under bond, he said.
State law requires 10 years' worth of data about the success of mine land reclamation before a mining company's obligations may end. Robb said Basin intends to apply for a bond release for the Glenharold mine's remaining 2,700 acres this year.
Deutsch said the 2009 bond releases marked the end of reclamation obligations for BNI Coal Ltd.'s former Larson mine near Noonan in northwestern North Dakota, two Royal Oak Enterprises Inc. mines near Dickinson, and an American Colloid Co. leonardite mine northeast of Hettinger. Leonardite is used for filtering water, fertilizing soil and as a component in specialized fluids used during oil well drilling.
Mark Trechock, director of the Dakota Resource Council, a Dickinson-based environmental group, said the recent PSC-approved bond releases affected former mines that have been closed for years. Waiting to approve bond releases until after a mine has been shut down can delay the process unnecessarily, he said.
State Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, who was chairman of the Legislature's interim study of bond release procedures, said the increase in the amount of land that is no longer under bond was welcome.
"It's been a process that has been kind of dragging," Warner said Monday. "I'm very gratified that it finally does seem to be happening."