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Backed by the powerful Pittsburgh Press, Guckert fought the good fight. "We defeated that donkey in the next election," he says. "We took it to the voting booth and let the people decide who the liars were." In 1963 a significant reclamation bill passed and was signed into law by Governor William Scranton. This bill included a tough "approximate contour" law, requiring mine operators to return sites to a condition that matched the contour of the original landscape as closely as possible.
That same year Scranton appointed Guckert to the Pennsylvania land reclamation board. In 1967 he was tapped to be head of the state bureau of reclamation. By 1971 Pennsylvania had also adopted a topsoil law, requiring that the richer loam be separated from the subsoil and replaced after the mining was completed, thereby creating better conditions for vegetation. "In some cases the land is improved," says Guckert. "There are cases where a farmer ends up with more acreage than he started with, by advance planning between him and the mine operator."
In 1971 seeding laws were enacted, requiring (at the state's discretion) the fertilization and revegetation of reclaimed land with either mixed legumes and timothy, seedling trees or grass.
The next stop on Guckert's and Lancaster's itinerary was a "reworking" of a mine where 30 years ago an operator went in to take out the easily accessible top seam of coal, leaving secondary seams still buried. A new operator is now working the mine, digging deep through the heaped and ugly overburden to get at the second seam (sometimes there's a third) of less dense, more sulphurous, yet profitable coal. Guckert points out, "The new operator is responsible to put back to contour everything he touches. Not only does that reclaim a lot of old-law land, but it puts it back on the tax rolls. It saves the state millions of dollars cleaning up, and gives communities taxable acreage."
There used to be grumbles from operators when they filed plans with Guckert's office to rework an old mine site and he would demand they put back old workings that were adjacent to, but not included in, their plans. "There's Pennsylvania law, and then there's Guckert's law," says Guckert. "I also made them save topsoil starting in 1968, even though the law didn't go into effect until 1972."
Franklin Mohney, head of the Pennsylvania Coal Producers' Association, the operators' group, says, "Bill Guckert is respected. He's tough and fair. We disagreed with him a lot in the beginning, mostly for economic reasons, but now we think he's one of the best things that's happened to the industry. Bill wrote his own laws sometimes, like saving topsoil, and legally he probably didn't have a leg to stand on, but no one took him to court. We usually find it better to go along with his ideas."
It would be difficult to imagine a pharmaceutical concern saying that about the Food and Drug Administration. But then, Guckert is a willful personality, not a regulatory bureau working from thick statute books.
Bill Guckert leaps from the Jeep on the ridge of a hill. "The operator is following a seam that runs into this mountain," he says. "He starts down there where the hill rises from the valley floor and cuts across it. He's got to leave 25 feet undisturbed as a barrier against water runoff. Then it's just like slicing a loaf of bread. After he finishes the first cut across, he piles the overburden from the next cut back in the hole. Then he just slices up the mountain, backfilling as he goes. The two D-9s down there are grading the land back to contour, and the operator is bound by law to keep them there, constantly backfilling, until the job is done."
Pennsylvania's coal operators are faced with a welter of laws, backfilling being one of the easiest to live with. In outline, the process of strip mining begins when the coal operator gets the mineral rights to a piece of land. Then he must have an O.K. from the surface owner. Usually this is worked out by a flat fee plus a fee per ton of coal.
Next the operator must get two permits: a mine-drainage permit and a surface-mining permit, for which he has to submit detailed maps of the exact area, showing elevations, streams, mudholes, roads, etc., with detailed proposals of how and when he's going to work the mine. The drainage proposal must include plans for stopping water runoff with pumps, hoses, settling ponds and dams. If any acid water or iron water or sediment is discovered, even up to five years later, the mine operator is held responsible.