Finding New Uses for Abandoned Lands?

By John McFerrin

Congress is considering two bills–the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act and the Abandoned Mine Land Fee Extension Act—that would change the way we spend money on mine sites that were mined before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed in 1977.

            When the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed in 1977 it made a couple of key assumptions.  The first was that this was the dawning of a new day.  It recognized that there had been problems with surface mining of coal in the past but the new law would make things different now.

            Congress recognized that there were many leftover sites, the ones mined before the dawning of the new day that had to be taken care of.  The solution was the creation of the Abandoned Mine Land fund.  It would impose a tax upon each ton of coal mined.  With that money it would take care of the sites that were mined before the Act.

            It assumed that this was a short term problem.  It provided that the fee would be collected for fifteen years unless Congress extended the time limit.  It assumed that, by the end of the fifteen years, all the old sites would be cleaned up and that would be that.  Problem solved.

            For new mining under the Act, the land was supposed to be restored to its use before mining or what the Act called a “higher or better use.”  It was supposed to be at least as good a condition, and possibly better and more useful, than it was before the mining.  The reclamation standards for Abandoned Mine Lands (mining done before the Act passed in 1977) weren’t exactly the same as they were for mining done after the Act but the idea was similar.

            Now that it has been over forty years since the Act passed, it is time to consider whether the Act worked as intended and whether the assumptions behind it were correct.  Congress is currently doing that with two bills—the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act and the Abandoned Mine Land Fee Extension Act.  

            The assumption about how long it would take to clean up all the abandoned mines was incorrect.  Congress assumed that the problem could be corrected in fifteen years. The fee has been extended more than once since it originally passed in 1977 but pre-Act mines still exist and need to be cleaned up.  The United States Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement estimates it would cost about $11 billion to reclaim mines abandoned before the federal coal mining law passed in 1977.  Currently the fee is set to expire in September. The Abandoned Mine Land Fee Extension Act is necessary because the fee is expiring and the job is not yet finished.  The Fee Extension Act would extend the fee for another 15-years.  

            The RECLAIM Act represents a slight re-direction in the purpose of reclamation.  There is no doubt that of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA)’s Abandoned Mine Lands program did a lot of good.  It sealed old mine openings; it put out smoldering mine waste dumps; it cleaned up sites that had been mined and just abandoned.  

The RECLAIM Act believes, as much good as it has done, it could do more.

            While the original language of SMCRA had some higher aspirations so far as the uses of Abandoned Mine Lands were concerned, in practice the reclamation requirements for Abandoned Mine Lands sites were pretty basic.  In a nutshell, the goal was to make something grow on the site and make the water leaving the site relative clean.  

The RECLAIM Act seeks to go beyond that.  That’s where the re-direction comes in.  The Act seeks to make abandoned mine cleanup not just about cleaning up the messes of the past but as a tool for economic development.  In the words of its main sponsor, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa, the RECLAIM Act of 2021 would “accelerate the release of $1 billion from the remaining, unappropriated balance in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to revitalize coal communities impacted by abandoned mine lands and the recent decrease in coal mining.  This legislation will enable States and Indian tribes to facilitate sustainable economic development in economically distressed communities.”

The Act does this by encouraging states to come up with economic development projects that would be designed to create favorable conditions for economic development in the surrounding area.  The economic development projects are supposed to be in communities which have historically depended upon coal mining and have been harmed by a reduction in coal mining.

            As an example of the kind of project that the RECLAIM Act would encourage, supporters point to Blue Acre Appalachian Aquaponics, an Abandoned Mine Land grant-powered joint economic development project in Mingo County.  It is supported by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority and Sprouting Farms, a Summers County-based nonprofit farming education and resource center.  The funding turned an abandoned mine site just inside the town of Kermit, one that had dangerous open portals and a slag pile that needed remediated, into a sustainable agricultural enterprise that now has three employees and sells lettuce and tilapia processed onsite to schools, grocery stores and individuals.

The politics of it all

            The bill has 44 cosponsors (34 Democrats, 10 Republicans) in the House of Representatives, including David McKinley (R, WVa).  Senator Joseph Manchin (D, WVa) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.  The bill has recently made some progress; it passed the United States House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. It has the support of a wide variety of citizen and labor groups, including the United Mine Workers, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the National Wildlife Federation and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.  

            Opposition to the two bills, and particularly the Abandoned Mine Land Fee Extension Act, comes from coal industry advocates who want the fee on current mining to be both reduced and extended for a shorter period of time.  

There is also a regional component to the dispute.  Most of the sites still to be reclaimed are in the east.  Much of the current coal production is in the west, particularly Wyoming, where there are few, if any, abandoned sites.  There is little enthusiasm among Wyoming coal producers for extension of a tax which will pay for reclamation not in Wyoming but in the east.