After years of overseeing a rise in abandoned mine liability in West Virginia, the eyes entrusted to look out for the state’s coal communities have turned to the federal government.
A U.S. House subcommittee hearing Tuesday focused on how the feds should respond.
The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources virtual hearing on environmental justice for coal communities highlighted the threat of abandoned, unreclaimed mines throughout Appalachia.
Witnesses argued that federal regulators need to do more to hold coal companies accountable to contain that threat through more stringent mine reclamation bonding requirements — and do it quickly.
“In short, the window is closing fast on the opportunity to ensure that the coal industry pays to clean up its own mess,” said Mary Cromer, attorney at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Whitesburg, Kentucky-based nonprofit representing miners, individuals and communities affected by coal mining in Central Appalachia. “The industry will never have more money than it has now to pay for reclamation.”
Cromer called on the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which works with states to oversee mine cleanup, to require strict enforcement and forfeiture of all permits for sites on which coal companies are neither mining nor reclaiming, actively engage in all coal bankruptcies to oppose attempts to sidestep federal enforcement and issue a directive asserting that reclamation includes long-term water treatment.
The House hearing came six days after a legislative audit report found that state government leaders and environmental regulators have put West Virginia’s reclamation funds at risk of insolvency through lax permitting and statutory oversight of coal companies.
Joseph Pizarchik, who served as Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement director under President Barack Obama, testified before the committee that states that have bond pools, like West Virginia, should have audits performed similar to West Virginia’s.
West Virginia’s audit, conducted by the state Post Audit Division, found that the reclamation fund slipping into insolvency could result in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement revoking its approval for West Virginia to adjust its surface coal mining program and pass state-specific legislation.
A day after that audit was presented to state lawmakers, they formed a new committee to go after federal stimulus money for mine reclamation.
The West Virginia Joint Committee on Government and Finance created a new Joint Committee on Mine Reclamation comprised of six members — two members of the majority party (Republicans) and one member of the minority party (Democrats) in the House of Delegates and Senate to be appointed by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.
The new committee was assigned to report its findings and recommendations to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance by June 25.
Four days after the audit report’s release, Gov. Jim Justice wrote a letter to West Virginia’s congressional delegation, urging its members to support reauthorizing the federal Abandoned Mine Land reclamation program.
Funded by a fee levied on coal companies, the program expires Sept. 30.
Justice endorsed reauthorizing the fee on coal production for an additional 15 years at the current rates of 28 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 12 cents per ton for coal mined underground.
The governor cited a state Department of Environmental Protection estimate that an additional $4.2 billion is needed to eliminate the inventory of abandoned mine land hazards in West Virginia.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., the top-ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, contended that abandoned mine land is being “weaponized” as an attack on fossil fuels.
“[W]e know that the states are in the best position to oversee these [reclamation] activities at a local level,” Westerman said.
But the week after a West Virginia audit highlighted failures in state mine reclamation fund oversight heightening a risk of insolvency likely to escalate as the coal industry declines, the state’s leaders are looking to the federal level for financial support.
“Without sufficient bonds, coal communities fear they will be forever burdened with hazardous and unusable land and polluted streams,” Cromer testified. “Immediate steps are needed to protect these coalfield communities.”