On his way to work Tuesday morning, Joey James passed by an underground coal mine that closed in 1952 but has persisted in degrading the lower stretch of Deckers Creek since then.
Later that morning, James brought up the acid drainage from the Richard Mine, located just outside Morgantown, to make a point.
“This feature, and others like it, are hindrances on economic development and on the quality of life in my community and others all across the country,” James said. “Indeed, while a lot of work has been done to clean up these sites and repair the damage they’ve caused our communities, billions of dollars of reclamation work remains to be done.”
James, principal researcher at Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown environmental consulting firm, was speaking during a news conference on his organization’s new report suggesting that Congress’ delay in investing in abandoned mine land cleanup is hurting West Virginia economically, as well as environmentally.
Congress’ failure to reauthorize fee collection for the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and pass $11.3 billion in proposed investments in abandoned mine reclamation puts West Virginia at risk to lose nearly 1,200 jobs that will last more than a decade, according to the research from Downstream Strategies.
That $11.3 billion influx of funding and fee collection reauthorization hang in limbo, along with the bipartisan infrastructure bill advanced by the Senate in August that contains them, amid Democrats’ negotiations over a larger social spending and climate bill.
Oct. 1 marked the expiration of federal authority to collect reclamation fees on abandoned mine land, casting a shadow of uncertainty over program-aided efforts to address dangerous conditions and pollution caused by past coal mining.
The Abandoned Mine Land program enables reclamation of mines abandoned before 1977 and is powered by a fee levied on coal companies: 28 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 12 cents per ton for coal mined underground.
The infrastructure bill the Senate passed with a 69-30 vote last month would reauthorize the program for 13 years at 80% of its current levels.
The report from Downstream Strategies predicts the bill would create 1,910 jobs and $4.7 billion in economic output in West Virginia, and a combined $7.4 billion in economic output across West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.
“This is critical economic stimulus we need in the coalfields,” James said. “These are jobs our people deserve.”
The environmental group Appalachian Voices has warned that the delay in reauthorization means agencies and communities can’t plan for new reclamation projects or respond to new emergencies.
“[W]e have methods that can clean polluted water, stabilize crumbling ground and reforest formerly compacted hillsides,” said Marissa Lautzenheiser of Rural Action, an Ohio-based sustainable development organization. “We know how to fix these problems, but the funding just isn’t there.”
Federal regulators say it would take more than $10 billion of work to reclaim eligible abandoned mine sites. But recent mine reclamation studies, including the report released Tuesday, suggest that is an underestimate.
The U.S. Department of the Interior announced $18.9 million for West Virginia to reclaim abandoned mine land in March. More than $8 billion has been distributed to states for reclamation projects since passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act established the program in 1977.
The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will distribute Abandoned Mine Land grants to states and tribes for fiscal year 2022 based on fiscal year 2021 fee collection, as provided by the 1977 law, office spokesman Francis Piccoli said Thursday.
If the fee remains unauthorized, the office would keep making grant distributions under the program to states like West Virginia that have not certified completion of known reclamation needs in fiscal year 2023, and thereafter, until the Abandoned Mine Land fund is depleted, according to Piccoli.
The fund contained $11.674 billion, including interest, as of Sept. 30, 2020. The amount in the fund will not be updated until the office completes end-of-year closeout activities, Piccoli said.
Of that $11.674 billion, $2.213 billion remained unappropriated. That amount helped support health care plans administered by the United Mine Workers union’s Health and Retirement Funds, which provide health and pension benefits to retired coal miners and their eligible dependents.
“We need Congress to approve this spending,” James said of the bipartisan infrastructure bill provisions. “We needed them to approve this spending yesterday.”