Improving the Sustainability of Abandoned Coal Mine Reclamation Efforts

By Roxana Lagunas

As an EPIC intern through the University of California Washington Program (UCDC), I wrote a paper exploring the implications of the shift in energy demand on coal mining resources and related community and environmental impacts. The primary focus was to understand current efforts to reclaim abandoned coal mines and see where improvements can be made.

Growing awareness about the dangers of coal mining has created a demand for cleaner sources of energy that lower our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, coal prices have exceeded those of renewable energy sources. In 2017, the Levelized Cost of Electricity per megawatt-hour was $102 for coal, $50 for utility-scale solar, and $45 for wind. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), since 2008 over half of previously operating coal mines have shut down primarily in the Appalachian region, where mines are typically smaller than in Western coal states. 

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-7A, Annual Survey of Coal Production and Preparation, and U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration Form 7000-2, Quarterly Mine Employment and Coal Production Report

Environment

Acid mine drainage (AMD) creates acidic pH levels that can lead to the loss of biodiversity in watersheds polluted by abandoned coal mines. Limestone has been used in the past to neutralize acidity. Additionally, soil degradation from mountaintop removal, a common practice in coal mining, has destroyed 1.4 million acres of Appalachia’s forests and 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwaters.

Community

Coal mine closures have put a dent in how much money is being allocated to states’ AML fund, which relies on taxed coal operations, forcing budget cuts in communities like Boone County in West Virginia. The balance stood at $2.3 billion in 2018, which is substantially less than the proposed total reclamation costs of $12.4 billion. In addition, respiratory illnesses, such as Black Lung, result from toxic pollution caused by historical coal mining and are worsened by degrading air quality in the region caused by abandoned mine methane.

Case Studies:

Rural Action, Green Forests Work and the Crested Butte Land Trust in Colorado offer examples of how communities are addressing the long-term consequences of coal mining and its demise. The following case studies showcase diverse approaches to abandoned coal mine restoration to encourage conversations that can inspire future projects.

  1. Rural Action is a non-governmental organization in the Appalachian region of Ohio that focuses on asset-based community development, including restoring lands that have been impaired by abandoned coal mines. Currently there are over $300 million worth of abandoned mine land damages in Ohio that have yet to be addressed, according to Nathan Schlater, Watershed Program Director for Rural Action.
  • The Monday Creek Restoration Project began in 1994 with the purpose of restoring 27 stream miles on the Monday Creek Watershed. As a result of this project, the number of fish species in the watershed increased from 4 to 37.
  • In 2020, Rural Action launched a project under True Pigments, LLC, and in collaboration with Gamblin Artists Colors in which AMD was turned into paint pigment and sold to help cover future costs of watershed restorations.

Acid mine drainage in Ohio. Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller, Copyright: Ohio University

  1. Green Forests Work (GFW) is an organization that reclaims and reforests “legacy” mine lands in Appalachia. These mines are not considered abandoned and are not eligible for traditional AML funding. Donations from local individuals, corporate sponsors, government grants, and NGOs, each make up approximately ¼ of GFW’s total revenue.
  • GFW has replanted 3.1 million trees and plans to replant 800-900 additional acres  in 2021, according to Michael French, Director of Operations for Green Forests Work.
  • GFW has been working to restore both public and private lands within the proclamation boundary of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky in collaboration with the United States Forest Service (USFS) to remove non-native, invasive plants that were inhibiting healing of the soil and restore healthy forests.
  • GFW reintroduced the red spruce tree that had been displaced by coal mining and logging in the Monongahela National Forest. They hope the resulting forest can encourage outdoor recreation and ecotourism while providing economic opportunities.
  1. In 2011, the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (CDRMS) partnered with the Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT) to recover wetlands affected by the abandoned Smith Hill Mine on the Gunsight Bridge parcel. In addition to AML funding and cooperation between the state government and landowners, CBLT received funding through private local funders and Real Estate Transfer taxes from the Town of Crested Butte.

Current and Prospective Federal Support

  • The RECLAIM Act of 2019 would authorize use of $1 billion from the traditional AML Fund balance over the next five years to support reclamation efforts that promote economic diversity and prosperity to communities affected by declining coal production. It has yet to be reintroduced in the Senate.
  • Over 80 organizations support The National Economic Transition Platform which advocates for the expansion of federal support for coal-dependent communities through the 7 pillars that they believe are essential for the nationwide transition to renewable energy.
  • The Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad introduces the goal to conserve 30% of America’s lands and oceans by 2030, providing an additional avenue of support for reclaiming abandoned mining lands. It also introduces the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization to address hazards caused by abandoned infrastructure. 

When addressing the reclamation and restoration of abandoned mining lands, organizations and lawmakers should consider the following recommendations. They are based on the challenges and successes we see in the presented case studies, as well as conclusions drawn from the gathered research.

  1. Provide long-term, sustainable federal funding opportunities to support abandoned coal mines restoration and local infrastructure in coal-producing states.
  2. Promote multi-organizational collaboration and community participation in reclamation projects.
  3. Prioritize reclamation of abandoned mining lands based on environmental quality benefits and support research that can quantify those benefits.
  4. Ensure that economic diversification empowers local community members and does not promote gentrification in historical coal mining communities.

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