When West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was handed an audit report noting the nearing insolvency of the state’s mine reclamation fund, he did what any good politician would do — he passed the buck.
Blair suggested that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., should look at the audit and appropriate federal funding he had mentioned to solve the problem. Of course, the report calls for the Legislature to commission a study examining the myriad problems and possible solutions. In fairness to Blair, no one in legislative leadership before him did anything about the same call to action repeated annually over the past four years.
According to prior audits, the advisory council responsible for monitoring the reclamation fund has at least four vacancies, members with expired terms and no comprehensive understanding of the problem.
In addition, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has been issuing new permits to mining operations that haven’t paid reclamation taxes or don’t have proper bond assurance against those taxes, in direct violation of the department’s own policies. It’s a long-standing problem. The audit found that the DEP had issued more than 130 permits to companies with mine reclamation tax delinquencies between 2009 and mid-2020.
So, in essence, no one is doing their job as it pertains to mine reclamation. And now they want Manchin — who is at the center of a national political firestorm over his opposition to the For the People Act and saw his local offices picketed Monday by protesters — to fix it. That seems unlikely to happen.
In absence of a deus ex Manchina, and despite the history of kicking this problem down the road, those who can do something about it need to take action immediately.
West Virginia has countless abandoned and disused mines and mining sites. Without proper reclamation, those sites pose a great risk to the communities around them, and the environment. Water pollution, soil erosion and landslides can — and have — occurred at mine sites not properly closed, not to mention the danger the abandoned mines pose to anyone who might wander into a site.
Blair might be hesitant to conduct a study because, having some experience in state government now, he realizes the likely proposed solution will require money. Of course, the money to reclaim these sites is supposed to be in the fund, but all of the aforementioned abandonment of any responsibility has created what Blair now calls a “billion-dollar problem.”
This is a recurring theme in West Virginia, whether it’s mine reclamation, deteriorating infrastructure (water systems and roads, in particular) or benefits and insurance for state workers and public school teachers. The problem festers until it no longer can be ignored and, by that time, it seems impossible to address.
Messes caused over a number of years will take a number of years to fix. It’s just harder to take the first step out than the first step in. The Legislature should start with a study and go from there. Maybe federal funding does become an option, but no one will know until the state has a real grasp of the situation.