BISMARCK — North Dakota coal companies operate on thousands of acres of land, much of it profoundly altered by the mining process. Coal companies are fading and shuttering across the United States, and while North Dakota has so far fended off the worst of the country's coal crisis, most experts — both in the industry and out — agree that the reckoning will get here eventually.

Coal companies in North Dakota are legally bound to clean up their mines when the mining work is done. Locally operating coal companies profess great pride in this restoration process, called reclamation, and showcase their restoration work wherever they can. For these companies, the reclamation process goes hand-in-hand with the mining itself; as new mines are carved out, old soil and grass goes back into exhausted mines to build back the land.

While the coal industry has promised to leave North Dakota's land as they found it, local environmentalists are waving their arms in warning that the end of coal could result in thousands of acres of under-reclaimed mine lands.

"If they are so confident that they are already doing all of the reclamation that they could be, great. I would love to see some more proof of that," said Kate French, a regional organizer for the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and a co-author of a recent report on mine reclamation in North Dakota and other western states.

"This is going to be the case around coal country," said Scott Skokos, the director of the Dakota Resource Council. "A lot of these coal power plants in North Dakota are at the end of their lives. There’s a possible situation where there’s a lot of different reclamation projects that are going to have to happen in the next 15 to 20 years in North Dakota."

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These environmentalist fears aren't unfounded. As renewable energy resources and natural gas have hurried the decline of coal over the last few years, high-profile mining bankruptcies have left deep blights on the landscape in other states with no one to pay for their restoration.

In North Dakota, McLean County's Coal Creek Station is slated to close in 2022. Local legislation in central North Dakota could preserve the mine for years longer, but when Coal Creek Station shutters, its neighboring Falkirk Mine will go with it. It's one of many locations where environmentalists warn North Dakota may be left with a million dollar hole in the ground.

A legacy of reclamation

In October of 1973, Gov. Art Link delivered his hallmark address, in which he outlined a vision for sustainable energy production for North Dakota that remains a bedrock for the state today.

"When we are through with that and the landscape is quiet again," Link said, in words that have since been irrevocably tied to his name, "let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, our grandparents did their job well: The land is as good, and in some cases better, than before."

Link, who died in 2010, is the father of reclamation in North Dakota. He laid out an expectation of commitment and responsibility to the land, according to which mine lands must be restored to their original form, until "the last bulldozer has pushed the soil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain."

Link is revered by North Dakota's coal barons and conservationists alike. Both hold up his speech as the standard for their work today.

"Governor Link was a visionary," said Sen. Jessica Unruh-Bell, a longtime ally of the coal industry who represents North Dakota's District 33, in the heart of coal country. "Whether it's coal or wind or oil, we all need to remember what Governor Link said."

Skokos evokes a similar reverence for the old governor, who he describes as almost a patron saint for the Dakota Resource Council.

"The way I look at it, if we don’t live up to Link’s legacy, we don’t succeed," he said.

In large part thanks to Link, North Dakota holds a distinctive place in the national conversation on reclamation. North Dakota established reclamation laws years before the rest of the country, pushed forward by Link, and when the federal government passed its Surface Mining and Coal Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in 1977, the laws that still dictate the national standards for reclamation, North Dakota layered more regulation on top of them.

"We took the federal laws and we enhanced them," said Unruh-Bell, who argues North Dakota's reclamation laws are "either the most stringent or some of the most stringent in the nation."

Moreover, she said, the standards for cleanup are stricter for the coal mining industry than any other energy field in North Dakota, a situation she says leaves little "room for a lot of improvement in the regulatory structure that's in place."

Promises kept

For environmental activists, however, the enforcement of reclamation in North Dakota hasn't lived up to the letter of the law.

Environmentalists point to North Dakota's practice of "self-bonding" as particularly dangerous. Self-bonding refers to the agreement between the state and coal mining companies, without collateral, that they will clean up every acre that they mine, restoring the land back to its original agricultural use.

With no collateral, environmental groups argue North Dakota is taking companies at their word, a dynamic that could come back to bite the state if coal companies fail.

"It would be naive to just trust that the companies are going to fulfill a vague promise that is indicated by a self-bond," said French, who has advocated for years alongside WORC that North Dakota and other states end the practice of self-bonding. "Communities need certainty. They need certainty because the coal mine companies are not giving them any certainty."

North Dakota is one of just a handful of states to still use self-bonding, and groups like WORC and the Dakota Resource Council argue the practice leaves North Dakota vulnerable to bankruptcies, in which the state could be left to sink millions of its own dollars into cleanup after a tanked mining company leaves the state.

As WORC points out, it has already happened in Wyoming, among other states, where self-bonding allowed the sudden bankruptcy of the mine operator Blackjewel to abandon hundreds of miners and thousands of acres in unreclaimed minelands.

Lawmakers and regulators in North Dakota said they are constantly reevaluating the use of self-bonding, taking note of its fallout in other states, but also said they don't expect the same consequences for North Dakota.

"It is something that I take very seriously, and we continue to monitor it and evaluate it," said Commissioner Randy Christmann, who oversees all of the state's coal mine reclamation projects on the Public Service Commission.

Christmann noted that self-bonding has been used in North Dakota for many years without incident and pointed to backstops in the state's regulatory policy to prevent cases like Blackjewel's in Wyoming. Among them, he said all coal companies must clear an "A" bond rating before entering into a partnership with the state.

"We've definitely been watching what's been happening with self-bonding in other states," Unruh-Bell added. "Right now, we don't see a need for any changes, and I don't foresee any issues."

North Dakota's coal companies stress their pride in the reclamation process, considering it as much a part of the business as the mining itself.

Wade Boeshans, the president of BNI Energy, said that his company is licensed to use some 20,000 acres in North Dakota, and each year it disturbs and reclaims close to 250 acres at a time.

"It's almost like the footprint is advancing with us," he explained. "We're disturbing in new areas and reclaiming in new areas contemporaneously, at the same time. So our footprint largely remains the same."

In the case of North Dakota's most high-profile potential mine closure, the Falkirk Mine next to Coal Creek Station, North American Coal has assured that it will restore their mine to its old form if the plant closes, as it's slated to in two years.

"I guarantee we will 100% meet the letter of the law and regulation," the company said. "Our goal is to leave the mine site as if we were never there, whether that happens in 2022 or 2045."

Still, for some of the region's conservationists, a company's word isn't good enough.

"When we're looking at this crash of the coal industry, of course the industry is going to be painting as rosy a picture as it can until the crash is right there and they can't deny it anymore," French said, pointing to other incidents in Appalachia and the Southwest where coal companies obscured the timelines of their closures, leaving workers and communities in the lurch at the last minute.

"What we need to do as the public is we need to be shrewd and apply our worst-case scenario glasses on this," French said.

Skokos argued that, while many of the state's coal companies have good intentions and have kept to their word so far, the state isn't enforcing reclamation to the full extent of the law. According to North Dakota's SMCRA laws, there are four phases of coal mine reclamation, and agricultural use is not achieved until a mine is restored to the final phase.

To meet the standards outlined by Gov. Link — to leave the land "as good" or "better than before" — Skokos argued, all mines should be returned to the fourth phase, a resolution he said only a fraction of North Dakota reclamation projects have reached.

As in other states, it will be left to the residents of coal country in North Dakota to make due with the land that's left when coal eventually phases out of the state.

"We take a lot of pride in what it is that we do and the work that is done in coal country," Unruh-Bell said. "The people who live in District 33 are the ones who are going to use the land in a sustainable fashion once the coal mines are all gone, so they're the ones who are best-suited to be doing that work. They're the ones who are best suited to be reclaiming the land and making sure that it's getting back to the productivity that it was before. There's nobody more motivated."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.