Workers participate in Pennsylvania's Ehrenfeld Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project, one of several projects supported by a federally funded program in 2016. The 2016 program focused on Appalachia, but a Western conservation group says reclamation of abandoned mines could employ thousands in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. (Photo via U.S. Department of the Interior Flickr)

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Reclaiming former coal mines could create thousands of jobs in the rural West, according to a new study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). The group is calling for coal companies who cease operations to fully fund employment opportunities that can help build a permanent local workforce throughout the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. 

The report, Coal Mine Cleanup Works, estimates that cleaning up and reclaiming coal mine sites in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming could generate between 4,893 and 9,786 “job-years.” That would be approximately 2,000 to 4,000 jobs over a two- to three-year period, which is a typical time-frame for reclamation.

WORC said that coal mine land reclamation should also be performed by local workers, many of them formerly employed by coal mines and coal energy generation facilities. That adds up to approximately 65% of the current surface mining workforce in the four-state region.

“Reclamation of coal mines is often undervalued as a job creation tool,” said Kate French, a WORC staff person and lead author for the study. “Coal companies often talk about reclamation as a financial burden or legal obligation, but we see reclaiming land as a necessary investment in job creation in rural communities that have supported and worked for these same coal companies for years.”

A graphic from the report shows potential reclamation employment for the four-state region. (WORC)

French said that new conditions, coal’s rapid decline in the region due to market pressures from natural gas development and the declining cost of wind and solar energy, require a new approach from regulators and legislators. 

“It’s naive to think that coal production and coal jobs are coming back, at this point. There are some very specific policy fixes that are key, but most important should be a new approach to dealing with the coal companies that are in various states of full production versus limited production versus shutdown and reclamation,” French said. 

WORC’s report key findings: 

  • Reclamation jobs provide years of employment at the end of mine’s life. 
  • Mine reclamation can and should be done by the local workforce. 
  • Reclamation timing affects who does reclamation work. 
  • Reclamation job creation is dependent on the availability of clean up funding. 

“Reclamation jobs were really important for me and my community after the New Horizon Mine shut down,” said Roger Carver, a retired coal miner and former president of UMW Local Union 1281, and member of the Western Colorado Alliance said in a press release.  “We at the union had to fight for these jobs because we knew workers were in limbo and didn’t know when the next paycheck was going to be. Plus, it felt good to be part of the cleanup and to repair the land that is part of my home.”

“Coal Mine Cleanup Works” report builds on previous research by WORC finding that more than a third of all strip-mined coal land in the Western U.S. requires cleaning up through reclamation. 

The graph compares the current mine employment (light green bar) with potential employment for reclamation work (blue bars).

Reclamation, while required by law, is often weakened as coal companies wind down their operations. Getting laid-off miners back on the job doing cleanup work in uncertain times is critical. 

WORC recommends several actions to minimize the risks of underfunded and delayed mine cleanup that maximizes hiring local workers. The group said that most reclamation projects would take two to three years to complete.

These recommendations include actions such as ending “insufficient and insecure reclamation bonds” by state and federal decision-makers, ensuring passing responsibility for cleanup on new mine owners, who should be vetted for their ability to fulfill these obligations, empowering state regulators to immediately seize bonds and begin cleanup on an abandoned site, accelerating reclamation at active mines, and incentivizing local hiring for mine reclamation.

“I ranched above the Signal Peak Mine, and the threat of water loss and damaged land was an unrelenting burden to my ranching operation and will be the same to other operators in the Signal Peak mine plan. We need to ensure the land and aquifer here are properly cleaned up, so that this area can be safely used by ranchers and others once the mine closes shop,” said Ellen Pfister a Northern Plains Resource Council member and retired Bull Mountain rancher, in a statement.  

“The market is winding down the coal industry, and these workers are going to need jobs to support their families. We can provide good-paying jobs to these skilled workers while restoring the land to productive use,” Pfister said. 

French, who lives in Montana and has worked on coal accountability efforts from mining corporations for more than a decade, understands that things are very different these days when it comes to coal company operations. 

“This is about policies and rules from mine regulators and decision-makers. But this is more about a new approach, an honest approach about a coal industry in decline, and the need to make investments in rural communities who have been exploited while supporting coal and coal production for many years,” French said.