In 1855, the first coal mine in Alaska was opened by the Russian-American Company near Port Graham on the Kenai Peninsula. Fifteen years later in 1870, the first gold mine was established just outside of Juneau. After the construction of the Alaska Railroad in 1917, coal mining began on a large-scale mainly in the Nenana and Matanuska coal fields. Pre-World War II, coal mining in Alaska was dominated by underground mines until 1943 ushered in an era of combined underground and surface mining. By the early 1960s combined mines were replaced by the surface mines that are still used today.
Coal and gold are only two of several precious resources produced in the state. Alaska's six currently producing mines--Fort Knox, Greens Creek, Kensington, Pogo, Red Dog, and Usibelli--produce zinc, silver, gold, lead, and coal. Greens Creek Mine is among the world's top ten silver producers and Red Dog is one of the world's largest zinc concentrate producers.
The Reclamation Process
No matter the size or quality of a deposit, natural resources are finite, and there are now depleted mines located throughout the state. A 1983 broad survey of Alaska's coal and non-coal abandoned historic mines inventoried 340 sites, but to-date the non-coal inventory remains incomplete for state, private, and Alaska Native lands.
In response to the number of abandoned mines, the Alaska Surface Coal Mining Control and Reclamation Act was approved in May 1983. The act effectively granted the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources jurisdiction over surface coal mining and reclamation operations in the state. Under the new state and federal laws, the Abandoned Mine Lands Program (AML) was created for the purpose of reclaiming abandoned mines of any type.
"Historic mining occurred in the 1920s through about the early 1970s, and it was all pre-environmental regulation, so these mining companies would go into an area and work for decades and then when they were done they would leave without cleaning up," says National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs Manager Justin Ireys.
Under AML, lands that are eligible for reclamation must have been mined or affected by mining and left in an inadequate reclamation status before August 3, 1977. Additionally, there must be no continuing reclamation responsibility under state or federal law. While there are a variety of mines that would fall under the jurisdiction of the AML, the program's funding source dictates that coal...