Wyoming coal, by the numbers:
- Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the union, and nearly 40 percent of the nation’s total.
- Wyoming coal is exported to power plants in 35 states, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.
- Wyoming has 68.7 billion tons of coal reserves; only Montana and Illinois have more coal than the Cowboy State.
- In 2008, Wyoming produced more than 462 million tons of coal.
- There are currently 13 active mines in the Powder River Basin, and six outside the basin, most of them surface, rather than underground, mines.
Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal producer, providing two-fifths of the coal extracted in the United States. This is more than is produced by the next four leading coal-producing states. There are 18 active coalmines in Wyoming, concentrated in the Powder River Basin. There are seven coal-fired power plants in Wyoming, and others are proposed or under construction.
Coal mining impacts:
The Powder River Basin, as a region, has exceeded the national PM 10 standard—the air quality standard for coarse particulate matter. But under EPA guidance, this area hasn’t been designated in “nonattainment.”
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality often classifies these PM 10 contraventions as “high-wind events,” arguing that dust was kicked up by exceptionally high winds, and therefore should not count as a violation of national air quality standards. The basic argument is that these are “natural events,” and not human-caused. However, even though high winds are, indeed, natural, there is nothing natural about the underlying cause of the high particulate levels in the air: There are vast tracts of bare land and soil in the Powder River Basin that were made bare by strip mining.
State and industry officials want to avoid violations of the national ambient air quality standard because it could lead to a "nonattainment" designation, which could force a moratorium on new mining, oil and gas, and other industrial activities in Campbell County, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. Outcomes such as shutdowns are not likely, in reality, but if the area were designated in nonattainment, significant steps to control air pollution would be required.
Surface mining releases methane gas into the atmosphere. Poisonous orange clouds used to be a major problem associated with large blasting operations, but the industry has moved to smaller blasts, and has worked to minimize the problem. However, it is still not unusual to have an orange cloud event in Wyoming coal country.
Surface mining in the PRB disturbs a great deal of land, and operators are required by law to work with the Wyoming DEQ, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Bureau of Land Management to reclaim and restore rangelands, farmlands, waterways, and wetlands.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council recently engaged in a revision of the state’s land reclamation rules for coal mining operations. Among other changes, the revised rules ensure that successfully reclaimed areas will not incorporate invasive non-native plant species, such as cheatgrass.
For the state’s coalmining guidelines and standard operating procedures, see http://deq.state.wy.us/lqd/guidelines.asp.