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Cleanup of abandoned coal mines would get a big boost under federal infrastructure bill

‘The next 15 years — if this passes — is literally a historic advancement in mine reclamation,’ one expert says.

Polluted Belt Creek in Montana. The state plans to build a plant to treat acid mine drainage from an old coal mine that’s Belt Creek, sometimes causing it to turn a rusty color and harming the trout fishery.
Polluted Belt Creek in Montana. The state plans to build a plant to treat acid mine drainage from an old coal mine that’s Belt Creek, sometimes causing it to turn a rusty color and harming the trout fishery.
Tom Henderson / Montana Department of Environmental Quality via AP

For decades, thousands of abandoned coal mines in the United States have been polluting rivers and streams, in some cases harming fish and contaminating drinking water. Now, efforts to finally clean up the sites could soon get a big boost.

The Senate-passed infrastructure bill includes $11.3 billion for cleanup of defunct coal mines. The money, which would be distributed over 15 years, would go a long way toward rehabilitating the sites, experts say.

“The next 15 years — if this passes — is literally a historic advancement in mine reclamation,” said Eric Dixon, a research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute.

Cleanup efforts are now funded by fees from coal mining companies. But that money has fallen far short of what’s needed. In 40 years, only about a quarter of the damage from abandoned coal mines has been cleaned up, according to Dixon.

Abandoned coal mines are concentrated along the Appalachian Mountains, with clusters also in the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains.

The sites can clog rivers with debris and pollute streams with harmful discharges caused by minerals exposed during mining, reducing fish populations and turning water brick red.

Safety is another issue. People can topple into mineshafts. And debris can fall from the high walls in mines.

Fees from companies for cleanup are collected under the federal Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977. That law aimed to remedy the nation’s history of unregulated coal production. Companies are now regulated so that sites are cleaned up once mining stops.

Among the states that need significant funding for mine cleanups are Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, according to the Interior Department.

Pennsylvania — which the federal agency says needs the most money for cleanup — has 5,500 miles of streams with impaired water quality due to runoff from abandoned mines, according to state officials.

A single abandoned mine site can pose multiple problems. Federal officials estimate $10.6 billion in construction costs would be needed to fix the more than 20,000 problems nationwide. Dixon puts the price tag at nearly $21 billion when factoring in inflation, planning costs and other expenses.

The infrastructure bill’s fate is tied to Congressional negotiations over a $3.5 trillion spending plan. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has praised the affect the federal funding could have on mine cleanups but cast doubt on the size of the spending plan.

The bill also would extend the fees coal companies pay into the fund until 2034, though at a reduced rate.

Ashley Burke of the National Mining Association said bigger fees would make U.S. coal companies less competitive but said the industry supports the extension of a reduced fee.