Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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Since 1872 commercial coal mining has existed in Oklahoma. In a sixteen-county area of eastern Oklahoma, unreclaimed mined land totals more than thirty-two thousand acres that were surface mined and another forty thousand acres that were mined using underground methods. Over the years many deaths and injuries have been associated with these abandoned surface and underground mines.

On August 3, 1977, Pres. Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-87, known as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The act established a trust, funded from a tax on coal, to be used to reclaim abandoned coal mine land that endangers public health and/or safety. In 1981 the Oklahoma Conservation Commission was given the statutory authority to administer Oklahoma's Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Reclamation Program. The program is completely federally funded and is administered through the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining. The commission utilized local conservation districts to assist in identifying AML sites posing the greatest danger for deaths and injuries. Using U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle maps, 261 problem areas were identified. On-site investigations categorized the high priority problems, such as open mine shafts, dangerous high walls, and hazardous water bodies. Most recorded deaths and injuries have been attributed to water-filled surface strip pits with dangerous high walls.

In the 1980s the commission concentrated its reclamation efforts on populated areas, where strip pits next to roads and highways in populated areas posed a threat to vehicular traffic. In the 1990s the commission emphasized elimination of hazardous open mine shafts and open portals associated with abandoned underground mines. An AML emergency refers to a sudden danger or impairment that presents a high probability of substantial physical harm to the health, safety, or general welfare of the public before the danger can be abated under standard procedures. The most common AML emergencies are subsidence events, in which the ceiling of an abandoned underground coal mine collapses and leaves a depression or an open hole to the surface. Between 1982 and 2003 sixty-seven emergency reclamation projects were completed. Since most of Oklahoma's underground mines had operated in the early twentieth century, wooden support beams were rotting, thus increasing the potential for subsidence.

Following the construction phase of each AML project, the commission usually relies on the conservation district to establish new vegetation. Each landowner assists in the selection of this permanent flora. Almost all of the reclamation work is on private property. Since the inception of the AML Program in Oklahoma, 3,741 acres have been reclaimed. However, as of September 2003 there were approximately 68,260 acres of high priority AML sites yet to be reclaimed.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Arrell M. Gibson, "Early Mining Camps in Northeastern Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 34 (Summer 1956). William E. Ham, Coal, Metals, and Nonmetals in Oklahoma, Oklahoma Geological Survey Semi-Centennial Report, 1908-1958 (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1958). John W. Morris, ed., Drill Bits, Picks, and Shovels: A History of Mineral Resources in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1982).

Michael L. Kastl

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