Abandoned coal mines leave toxic pollution and other hazards in their wake. This year, communities in 22 states and the Navajo Nation will get $725 million to clean up the sites.
The funding, announced this week by the Department of the Interior, is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal that Congress passed in November 2021. The law allocates a total of $11.3 billion over the next 15 years for the clean-up efforts. The money will be used to control underground mine fires that have burned for decades, close mine shafts at risk of collapsing, repair unstable slopes left by strip mines, and improve water quality in rivers and streams acidified by runoff from old mines.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to helping working families, often in rural and Tribal communities, who face hazardous pollution, toxic water levels, and land subsidence both during mining and long after coal companies have moved on,” said Secretary Deb Haaland in a press release.
Closing abandoned mine shafts is also a win for the climate. In their latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, EPA estimated that abandoned underground coal mines leaked 237,000 metric tons of methane in 2019 — not far behind abandoned oil and gas wells, which leaked 263,000 metric tons of the potent planet-warming gas.
This isn’t an entirely new undertaking for the federal government. After coal communities in Appalachia began organizing against strip mining in the mid twentieth century, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. That law put in place regulations for active coal mines and created a fund to remediate mines abandoned prior to 1977 by imposing a tax on coal — currently 22.4 cents per ton for surface mines and 9.6 cents per ton for underground mines. Since then, the government has spent $7.9 billion over the past 45 years on clean-up efforts.
The additional $11.3 billion that the Department of the Interior will distribute is the largest investment in the abandoned mine lands program’s history. Eric Dixon, a senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, called it “a categorical step forward in remediating the polluted water, dangerous mudslides, coal mine fires, piles of waste coal, and other problems from historic mining.”
But it will only address about half of what he estimates is approximately $25 billion in remaining damage from mines abandoned before 1977.
The new funding won’t be applied to mines abandoned after 1977. When coal companies go bankrupt today, state-run, industry-funded bond programs are supposed to foot the bill for cleaning up the mess left behind. But with the coal industry in a steep decline, many of those programs are in crisis. In states like West Virginia, there simply isn’t enough money in the bond fund to reclaim all of the abandoned mine sites.
Pennsylvania, home to sites like Swoyersville’s 40-foot, 55-acre pile of coal waste and the Old Forge Borehole, which has poured acidic water and iron into the Lackawanna River for more than 60 years, is set to receive the largest share of funds: nearly $245 million. Prior to 1977, more coal was mined in Pennsylvania than any other state, and that legacy lingers.