A Short Regulatory History of Mining and Reclamation in Colorado
In a land that seemed full of inexhaustible resources, settlers and miners scrabbling for their share of the gold rush demanded legal structure of rights for discovery, procedures for developing and validating mineral discovery, for settling disputes of ownership, of property boundaries and of rights of access.
The long-term environmental impact of certain mining practices, however, was rarely considered until competition for the land grew more intense. Early federal regulation targeted negative environmental and subsidence effects of coal mining in Appalachia. Colorado and other western states joined the federal trend regulating coal mining, and with growing public awareness of and concern for the impact of both past and future mining operations, citizens enacted new guidelines for all types of mining.
Early steps were often inconsistent. In 1965, Colorado instituted a voluntary reclamation program. Memorandums of understanding between operators and the state were signed, setting forth site-specific reclamation criteria, and the Colorado Open Cut Land Reclamation Act followed four years later; without funding for administration or enforcement of the program, though, this legislation proved ineffective. The Open Mining Land Reclamation Act of 1973 established a permitting process, requiring limited bonding and more rigid reclamation performance timelines and standards for coal mines and sand and gravel operators, though hard rock mines (such as gold and silver mines) still avoided bonding and were not required to protect the hydrologic balance, establish suitable vegetation, or dispose of toxic materials in a safe manner.
By 1975, all western states except Arizona had adopted some form of mining and reclamation standards and regulations.With a strong commitment from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Division was created in early 1976 to regulate non-coal mining operations. The Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Act was passed, and a Mined Land Reclamation Board was appointed to serve in an administrative and adjudicatory capacity.
The Federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, specific to coal mining, in 1977, and as an equivalent to the federal law, the Colorado Surface Coal Mining Reclamation Act was passed in 1979, approved at the federal level in 1980, and placed under the administration and adjudication of the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board.
Colorado has continued to operate under these two programs, amending them as necessary. Since 1980, the greatest changes have been in incorporating environmental protection provisions, protecting adjacent properties and water resources, improving bonding procedures, and addressing higher risk operations by creating specific regulations for operations posing a higher degree of risk to persons, property, or the environment.
The Division of Mined Land Reclamation merged with several other divisions within the Department of Natural Resources to create the Division of Minerals and Geology (DMG) in 1992. Within DMG, the Office of Mined Land Reclamation (OMLR) administers rules and regulations through the Coal Program and the Minerals Program. In 1993, DMG amended the Minerals Act to give the Division and Board greater authority in bonding requirements and environmental engineering design and protection, and earlier grandfather protections were modified to retrofit old permits with the necessary new environmental requirements.