Bill to reform Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SB 209) introduced

Senator Pavley has introduced SB 209, a bill to reform the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA).  The Sierra Fund has worked with Senator Pavley to help identify opportunities to improve consistent enforcement of SMARA, relating to inspections and reclamation.

Regulation of mining practices based on their environmental impacts began with the “Sawyer Decision” in 1884 which essentially ended large scale hydraulic mining in the state.   Prior to the adoption of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) in 1975, mining in California, like all other states in the nation, was regulated by the federal 1872 Mining Act. Prior to the adoption of the California SMARA and its later amendments, there were no requirements that mines be reclaimed.

SMARA regulates both the opening of new mines and the reclamation of any currently operating mines. California SMARA law applies on all lands in the state when more than one acre of disturbance or more than 1,000 cubic yards of overburden or product is removed.

SMARA delegates mine regulatory and permitting functions on all property to the local land use agency, usually cities or counties.  These “lead agencies” perform the environmental evaluation of mines required by CEQA, as well as review and approve the reclamation plan and associated financial surety documents as part of the overall mining permit they issue.  The lead agency is also responsible for mine inspections and enforcement activities.

Recent research by the California Senate Natural Resources Committee and by the Department of Conservation’s OMR has shown that SMARA is enforced inconsistently by the counties and cities that serve as lead agency.  While some local jurisdictions do an excellent job of regulating their mines, some counties and cities have been found to have a spotty record of inspection, enforcement of permit conditions, and reclamation of mines in their jurisdiction.  In other instances, mines that are known to not be in compliance with SMARA law are allowed to operate and sell their products to the State despite the mine’s failure to comply with state law.  In addition, it has been documented that many current mine operators do not pay their fees, creating financial strain on the regulatory activities funded by these fees.

As introduced, Senator Pavley’s SMARA reform bill, SB 209, would require the Department of Conservation to begin in 2018  to offer continuing educational opportunities for lead agency employees to become certified  by the department to inspect surface mining operations. The bill would prohibit a lead agency that operates a surface mining operation from having an inspection performed by a lead agency employee, as specified, unless that employee has become certified as a surface mining operation inspector within the previous 2 years.