Report Analyzes Economic Impact of Abandoned Mine Lands Program

By Eliza Laubach

Central Appalachia, which hosts an estimated 25 percent of the country’s abandoned mine lands, is disproportionately burdened with 65 percent of the total economic impacts associated with the decline of coal mining, according to a landmark July report by the Abandoned Mine Lands Policy Priorities Group.

The policy group, which formed last year, obtained data on the Abandoned Mine Lands program through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Congress established the AML program in 1977 to address post-production mine lands abandoned by coal companies prior to that year. Since then, the program has spent more than $5.7 billion to reclaim nearly 800,000 acres of abandoned mines across the country. But the remaining 6.2 million acres “ravaged by abandoned coal mine problems” will require nearly twice that investment, the authors report. The program is also facing declining revenue and is set to expire in 2021.

The policy analysis describes how a formula based on recent coal production currently determines distribution of funds, which are sourced partly from a tax on each ton of coal a company produces and partly from the federal treasury. The authors suggest replacing that formula with one that is based on need. Determining that need should be guided by an updated inventory of AMLs, the report states.

Currently, the remaining $2.5 billion in the AML fund is being invested in treasury securities, with the interest supporting the United Mine Workers Association’s health and pension plans. Distribution of these funds should be accelerated, especially in communities with economies that are hardest hit by coal’s decline, the report’s authors suggest. The report also calls on Congress to find an alternative financial support for UMWA pensions.

The POWER+ Plan, a part of the Obama administration’s 2016 budget proposal, seeks to reform the AML program and encourage sustainable redevelopment of unreclaimed mines across the country, a revitalization effort that could create an estimated 3,117 jobs nationwide.

But although the POWER+ Plan would base funding on historic coal production, it does not go far enough, the report’s authors say, because it “ignores any factor of economic distress,” and central Appalachia is experiencing “unprecedented economic decline, environmental damage and inequality.”

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