By John McFerrin
The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act has broad benefits for Americans in general, as well as higher taxes for some Americans. If all works as planned, we will all be dodging fewer potholes, breathing normally as we cross bridges, etc.
The bill does, however, contain some provisions that are specifically applicable to issues that the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has focused on in the past.
In its national roundup, the New York Times had this to say about West Virginia:
West Virginia’s senators, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, also helped draft pieces of the legislation, which includes a $2 billion rural grant program expected to direct funding toward the Appalachian highway system. A stretch of that system, Corridor H — intended to connect Interstate 79 in north-central West Virginia to Interstate 81 in Virginia — has gone unfinished for more than a half-century, but will now get a jump start. The bill also pumps more than $11 billion into a program to clean up toxic leaks from abandoned coal mines, an undertaking estimated to cost at least $2 billion in West Virginia alone.
Things might look different on the local level than they do from New York. West Virginia’s Department of Transportation Secretary has since told the West Virginia Legislature that his Department’s priorities are Corridor H, the King Coal Highway, and the Coalfields Expressway. It is not at all clear exactly how much money will be available or how the Department would allocate money among these three possibilities.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s relationship with Corridor H has been ambivalent, to say the least. In Fighting to Protect the Highlands: The First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, David Elkinton describes it this way: “In essence, the Conservancy questioned the basic need for a controlled-access four-lane highway, preferring instead an upgrade of existing U.S. Route 33, U.S. Route 50, and other feeder routes.” He was describing our position in 1974; it hasn’t changed. Indeed, our affiliated group Corridor H Alternatives has the same idea in its name and shares this view.
This is particularly true if the West Virginia Department of Transportation continues to pursue its planned route. That route includes a bridge across Blackwater Canyon and a four lane road that splits Davis and Thomas. With or without a financial boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, if the Department of Transportation pursues that route there will be opposition.
The New York Times story had an undertone of relief: we’ve been planning this thing for fifty years; now we can finally build it. There’s many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip; there’s many a slip between the bill signing and the dirt flying.
When the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed in 1977, Congress acknowledged that there were existing abandoned mines that had been done before the Act, when mining was lightly regulated, if at all. To address these, Congress imposed a fee on all coal production. Money from that fee would be used to clean up these abandoned mines.
Congress assumed that all abandoned mines would be cleaned up in a matter of years; the tax was imposed for a limited time. As things turned out, fixing those mines took longer and cost more than Congress had anticipated. Nationwide there remain abandoned mines that would take about $10 million to clean up. The fee was extended several times; the last extension ended earlier in 2021.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act renews the fee and extends it to 2034. The fee is lower than it was in previous years. The Act also authorizes expenditures from the fund until 2034.
Abandoned gas wells
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act allocates almost five billion dollars to plugging, remediation, and restoration of abandoned oil and gas wells. West Virginia has several thousand abandoned oil and gas wells. In 2019 there were estimated to be 4,500. In addition to the ones already abandoned, there were several thousand more that were probably going to be abandoned soon.
The American Geoscientists Institute did a study of abandoned wells. From the study it concluded that many of the abandoned wells are leaking methane (a greenhouse gas) as well as other toxic materials. There are additional dangers when the abandoned wells are close to a well where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is going on. The fracking can push oil or salty water up unplugged wells.
West Virginia has made sporadic attempts to plug these wells but there are not the resources to address more than a small fraction of them. Although some sort of proposal to address this problem is a perennial topic at the West Virginia Legislature, no comprehensive solution has ever made it across the finish line. West Virginia’s share of almost five billion dollars would go a long way toward addressing this problem.
What the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act Didn’t Fix
There are two problems with coal mines that are no longer operating. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act fixed one; the other is the big mess it always was. Most of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s efforts over the past few decades has been toward correcting the problem that the Act did not correct.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 created the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to clean up mines abandoned before 1977. For mining after the Act passed in 1977, the Act required performance bonds to assure the land would be reclaimed.
West Virginia adopted a policy of requiring bonds that were smaller than the cost of reclamation. It supplemented these inadequate bonds by requiring all mining companies to pay into a Special Reclamation Fund. When the inadequate bonds were insufficient to pay for reclamation, the Special Reclamation Fund would pay the rest. For example, if a mine operator left an unreclaimed mine that would cost $5,000 per acre to reclaim but the bond was only $2,000 per acre, West Virginia would forfeit the bond. It would take the remaining $3,000 per acre from the Special Reclamation Fund.
This system only ever worked in theory. In practice, the Special Reclamation Fund is insolvent. It has never had enough money to pay for reclamation of all the mines where the bonds were inadequate.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act extended the life of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund (see story, p. 1). For now that problem is solved. The abandoned mines still exist but we are on a path to cleanup. The insolvency of the Special Reclamation Fund remains. It is West Virginia’s problem to solve, decide who is left holding the bag, etc. As it has for decades, WVHC’s advocacy on that issue will continue.
What’s in It for the Bees?
A summary of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act contains this item:
Establishes a program to provide grants to carry out activities that benefit pollinators on roadsides and highway rights-of-way, the section authorizes for appropriations $2 million for each of fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for the program.