A large dozer sits ready for work at Peabody Energy's Gateway Coal Mine near Coulterville, Illinois. The growing number of bankruptcies in the coal industry make it increasingly likely taxpayers will be stuck with the high costs of reclaiming abandoned mines. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Appalachia has an abandoned mine land (AML) problem, and it’s much bigger and costlier to clean up than people thought. And the time to do it is running out. 

The federal AML inventory estimates that the cost of cleaning up all abandoned mine land–land that was mined before the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977– is $11 billion. But a new report from the Ohio River Valley Institute shows the cost is more than double what the federal inventory previously claimed – $26 billion. 

“Anyone at a mine reclamation agency will tell you that the federal AML inventory is a low-ball estimate. And yet it’s the most widely cited figure we have,” said Eric Dixon, the author of the report. “The real size of the problem is two or three times what’s in the official inventory.” 

Large-scale coal mining began in Central Appalachia in the 1870s, fueling America’s industrial revolution and forming the economic backbone of the region through the 20th century. It wasn’t until a century later that Congress passed the first and most consequential federal law regulating the environmental impacts of coal mining, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). 

SMCRA created the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) and required that coal companies set aside money to pay for the restoration of all land permitted after the law’s implementation. The law also designated any land mined prior to 1977 as Abandoned Mine Land (AML), and set up a fund to reclaim these sites by collecting a small fee on each new ton of coal produced. The AML Fund has collected a total of $11.496 billion, of which only $2.23 billion remains. 

But Dixon’s research shows this is not nearly enough.

According to the report, of the 1.2 million acres designated as abandoned mine land, only 27% has been cleaned up since the 1970s. The cost of reclaiming the remaining 850,000 acres is an estimated $26.3 billion, a price that will only increase if sites are left to degrade for decades more. 

Clear and Present Danger

Unreclaimed mine lands pose significant threats to nearby communities and ecosystems, and can contribute to global warming. Fatalities caused by falling debris from highwalls, rockslides, and flooding are just some of the dangers posed by unreclaimed land. High rates of water pollution, Acid Mine Drainage, and underground mine fires release harmful toxins which have been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and cancer. 

The pollution from the sites also drastically reduces biodiversity in the region and holds back much-needed economic development. Additionally, abandoned coal mines are a significant source of methane and other greenhouse gasses, which contribute to climate change. 

This damage is concentrated in Appalachian states, with 82.4% of AML costs and their associated consequences located in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. 5.5 million Appalachians and 1 in 3 West Virginians live within 1 mile of an AML site, according to Dixon. 

Such high human, environmental, and economic costs demand decisive action. But at the current rate of AML fee collection, Dixon predicts a revenue gap of $25.6 billion. 

In other words, the total cost of reclaiming all abandoned mine sites by 2050 will exceed the amount available in the AML fund by tens of billions of dollars. 

Federal Help Is on the Way

President Joe Biden recently introduced the American Jobs Plan, a sweeping proposal to invest $2.3 trillion over the next ten years in traditional infrastructure, expanding broadband access, renovating electric and water grids, revitalizing manufacturing, and investing in small communities around the country. 

Included in the package is “an immediate, up-front investment of $16 billion that will put hundreds of thousands to work in union jobs plugging oil and gas wells and restoring and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines.” 

If passed through Congress, the plan would represent the most significant influx of federal dollars supporting mine reclamation and land repair since the passage of SMCRA. 

But research by the Ohio River Valley Institute shows that even a $16 billion investment would only begin to repair the damage caused by over a century of coal, oil, and gas extraction. 

This is because those funds are meant to go towards not only mine reclamation, but also capping orphaned oil and gas wells. A second report from the Ohio River Valley Institute estimates that there are as many as 2.3 million unplugged oil and gas wells around the country, and that the cost of plugging the 538,000 abandoned wells in the Ohio River Valley region alone would be between $25-$34 billion. 

Just like abandoned mine lands, unplugged oil and gas wells contribute to global warming by emitting greenhouse gasses and produce hazardous waste and pollution that contaminate water and affect human health and safety. 

The estimated costs of cleanup do not include the 1 million wells that are still in production today, or the millions of acres of land that were mined after 1977 but not reclaimed properly due to weak government regulation that allowed coal companies to pay only a fraction of the necessary bonding costs and repeated use of bankruptcy court as a tool to shed mining companies’ financial liabilities on abandoned mine lands. 

In addition to the proposed funding included in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, there are several other measures Congress can take to assist in mine reclamation. The AML fund, which collects a low fee on each new ton of coal mined, is set to expire in September unless Congress renews it. 

Dixon emphasized the importance of renewing the fund, but acknowledged that the current rate of fee collection won’t be nearly enough to pay for the cost of AML reclamation. 

“If your goal is to fund the remaining size of the damage, it would take increasing the fee levels 10 times their current rate,” he said. “If Congress isn’t going to do that, I recommend at least doubling [the fees] to ensure that we’re holding the coal industry responsible for tens of billions of dollars worth of damage before it completely vanishes. And even with that, I think it’s likely we’ll need money from elsewhere to address the rest of the problems.”

Repairing the Damage, Rebuilding Economies

In addition to co-sponsoring a bill that would reauthorize the AML fund for another 15 years at its current rate, Representative Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania) reintroduced the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act in March. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) along with four other Senators from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia introduced the same bills in the Senate at the end of April.

The RECLAIM Act would release $2.4 billion of the existing AML funds to speed up abandoned mine reclamation and “provide funding for mine reclamation projects that have an economic nexus,” said Dana Kuhnline, the campaign coordinator for the RECLAIM Act. 

Typically, only the most dangerous AML sites (such as those that are at risk of causing landslides) are prioritized. But this exclusive focus on AML emergencies, though vital, means that communities often aren’t able to focus on a broader vision or long-term planning for their communities, Kuhnline explained. 

Rob Rice, left, ex-chief of the West Virginia Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation, and planner Jonathan Knight check on the smoldering underground fire at a long-abandoned coal mine in Preston County, West Virginia, back in January of 2017. The fire burned low for several years, then erupted into a bigger fire, moving it to the top of the state’s long cleanup list at the time. (AP Photo/Michael Virtanen)

“Our hope is that the RECLAIM Act would free up some funding for communities that have [AML] liabilities holding them back, and allow them to be ambitious with what they want to build in their communities so they can turn dangerous sites into community assets,” Kuhnline said. 

Examples of similar projects, funded by the AML Pilot Program, include a coal-waste pile in an Illinois town transformed into a soccer field, a solar farm on a former mining site in Southwest Virginia, and an Acid Mine Drainage treatment plant in Ohio that will use the iron it removes from the water to produce paint pigments. 

The bill, which was initially introduced in 2017 by Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) has garnered both bipartisan and local support. The RECLAIM Act would create an estimated 13,000 jobs in some of the Appalachian communities hit hardest by the decline of the coal industry, according to a press release.

Stephen Herzenberg, the executive director of the Keystone Research Center and member of the ReImagine Appalachia coalition, believes that mine reclamation, job creation, and economic development go hand in hand, and that all three are necessary in Appalachia. “Our campaign is rooted in a region where working families have struggled, and where people have viewed taking care of the environment as being negative for jobs,” he explained. 

Countering that narrative by creating well-paying jobs that repair the centuries of damage to land, water, and mining communities is one of ReImagine Appalachia’s top priorities, one seemingly shared by the Biden administration and promoted by the American Jobs Plan. 

“This massive investment is what we need to make sure that aggressive climate response will be a boon to economic opportunity,” Herzenberg said of the Jobs Plan.  

In his report, Eric Dixon estimated that investing $13 billion to reclaim half of all AML sites over the next ten years would create 17,293 direct and indirect jobs, and a total of 344,403 job years, primarily in Appalachia. 

These would include design and administrative jobs, as well as construction jobs which would be well-suited for former coal miners who have been affected by the decline of the coal industry. 

This influx of jobs has the potential to help revitalize the Appalachian economy, but Dixon warns that simply creating reclamation jobs won’t be a silver bullet. 

When he looked into the details of the kinds of jobs that would be created, he found that although they paid above the poverty line, most of the occupations in the states in question were still relatively low-wage. “These aren’t bad jobs,” he said. “But there’s more that we have to do to make sure they’re really good jobs.” 

The recommendations he outlined in the report include requiring that Davis-Bacon wage regulations (which require that federal contractors and laborers be paid no less than the prevailing wages and benefits for corresponding work in their area) be applied to AML contracts, and that AML reclamation programs protect rights to collective bargaining and unionization, promote local hiring provisions, and prioritize firms that are owned by people from historically disadvantaged groups. 

He also supported a public jobs program, such as the revitalized Civilian Climate Corps championed by President Biden and introduced in Congress last week by Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). 

Dixon believes that a public jobs program will ensure that local people are hired to repair their communities, and will make jobs accessible to the most economically disadvantaged people in the region. “There’s a gender, race, and age aspect to this too, because young people, people with less-formal schooling, people of color, and women all have disproportionately higher poverty rates in small counties,” he said. He also recommends that programs should set aside jobs for former coal workers, formerly incarcerated people, and those recovering from substance abuse.

Although Biden’s support for these programs is significant, the ability to appropriate the billions of dollars needed for reclamation and funding a public jobs program like the Civilian Climate Corps ultimately lies with Congress. Influential politicians such as Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) who represent the Appalachian region, have the power to make these plans a reality, Herzenberg said. 

“We need an ambitious plan, and it needs to be really friendly to workers and to unions, and make sure that a diverse future workforce can share in the good jobs that result,” he said. “We need to line up behind that plan, and line up together behind the fact that our region needs a fair share of these resources because of the economic challenges in our region and the damage from a century of extraction.”