Pennsylvania’s Implementation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act: An Assessment of How “Cooperative Federalism” Can Make State Regulatory Programs More Effective

This Article first explains the background against which Pennsylvania’s implementation of SMCRA has occurred. Coal mining has had a serious and continuing effect on the State’s environment, as Part I explains. In response to these effects, Pennsylvania began to regulate coal mining many decades ago. This regulatory development reached a milestone when the State achieved primacy under SMCRA in 1982.

Part II suggests that the new program in Pennsylvania has been responsible for substantial reductions in adverse environmental effects from surface coal mining, particularly less erosion and sedimentation, less acid mine drainage, and more backfilling. In addition, Part II explains that coal operators have been forced to change their planning and mining procedures because of the new program and that these changes have meant increased costs. At the same time, the primary factors affecting coal production appear to be related to diminished demand for coal.

The remainder of the Article assesses why the program has improved, emphasizing those features of the federal scheme that have contributed the most to the effectiveness of the new program and many of those that still need to be fully implemented. Part III demonstrates that SMCRA has strengthened and enhanced a permitting process that was already fairly sophisticated when SMCRA was passed. Part III also explains that the new program contains a clearer and more complete set of performance standards than the old program. Part IV demonstrates that SMCRA has radically improved enforcement of the coal regulatory program, generally by structuring the State’s enforcement authority. In key ways, this enforcement program is an innovative hybrid of SMCRA requirements and preexisting state laws. An important feature of the new program, emphasized in Parts III and IV, is increased opportunities for citizen participation.

Part V explains that SMCRA cost Pennsylvania its prior independence in program development but that program organization and the State’s personnel complement have become stronger and more sophisticated. Part V also argues that federal oversight has made a major contribution to the increased effectiveness of the new Pennsylvania program. Finally, because SMCRA allows states to implement more stringent and, to some extent, different provisions, Pennsylvania has been able to respond to the federal scheme in ways that enhance SMCRA’s protective features.