APPALACHIA — The authorization of funding for the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund officially expired at midnight Thursday. This lapse in funding brings a new level of uncertainty to the AML program, which is responsible for cleaning up dangerous highwalls, open mine portals, and polluted streams left by the coal industry all over the country.
Legislators have known since 2006 that the AML Program needed to be reauthorized by Sept. 30, 2021, but have declined to prioritize abandoned mine cleanup despite numerous bills to reauthorize the program in recent years. The latest was the failure of the U.S. House to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act before the AML fund expired last night. That bipartisan infrastructure bill reauthorizes the AML program and coal severance fee at a reduced rate, and contains an unprecedented $11.3 billion in AML funding that would have created thousands of new jobs across coal communities. That now sits in jeopardy as local communities and state and tribal agencies wonder what’s next.
“It is incredibly disappointing and frustrating that Congress has allowed the Abandoned Mine Land Program to expire. This is the only source of revenue for coal mining communities to clean up environmental and human health hazards left behind by the coal industry that put people at risk on a daily basis,” said Chelsea Barnes, Legislative Director of Appalachian Voices. “These communities have powered our nation for more than a century — to let these people down is inexcusable. Congress must act immediately to reauthorize the AML program and provide long-term certainty to the state and tribal governments that administer the clean-up programs and the communities that rely on these funds.”
The full impact of the unprecedented failure to reauthorize funding is unclear, but state and tribal agencies in the process of determining staffing and project funding levels for next year are now again faced with uncertainty. The expected funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill would be a massive increase compared to the current annual distribution for AML reclamation and restoration. Over the last 40 years of the AML program, states have received just over $6 billion in total grant distributions. The investment included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is nearly double that amount in just 15 years. While the full cost of reclaiming all remaining AML sites will likely exceed $20 billion, the proposed funding would roughly equal the reclamation costs currently in the federal database.
“The failure to pass reauthorization of SMCRA and the infrastructure bill is a travesty for our coalfields communities that have suffered immensely from the legacy of abandoned mine lands and acid mine drainage [AMD]. It shows a lack of commitment and investment in the parts of the country that fueled the entire industrial revolution to help build our nation when there were very little environmental regulations in place,” said Bobby Hughes, Executive Director for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR). “Our children are going to have to continue to live with polluted water and environmental land degradation — that is an injustice that I would have thought we would be much further along in the last 3 decades of my career. We deserve clean water.”
Reclamation projects have already shown positive impacts on local communities, and many more projects are poised to create jobs with federal investments. West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies assessed the economic impact of the infrastructure legislation’s $11.3 billion in new AML funding for just Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. In West Virginia, 1,730 jobs would be created and $4.3 billion in economic output generated over 15 years. Ohio would add 680 jobs and $1.8 billion, while Virginia would add 300 jobs and $790 million. All together, this analysis found that annual distributions to West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia will increase by about 8 to 10 times. Similar benefits are expected in coal-impacted areas from coast to coast. (View Estimated State Funding Distributions.) Now, all of these benefits are at risk.
“To be so close to achieving a transformational investment in cleaning up abandoned coal mines and, instead, having the only source of funding for clean-up expire is gut wrenching. We’re moving backward instead of forward. We’ve known about this expiration date since 2006. There’s no reason that we should have run up against this deadline.” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy and Organizing for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
AML sites pose health and safety risks to residents and stand as barriers to economic growth. Supporting these crucial infrastructure projects through the AML fund will put people to work repairing land and waterways damaged by mining, treating polluted waters, sealing and filling abandoned mine entries, and developing erosion prevention measures to prevent dangerous land and mudslides. In 1977, Congress established the AML fund under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Since then, the Abandoned Mine Lands program has eliminated over 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed over 1,000 miles of dangerous highwalls, restored water supplies to countless residents of coalfield communities, and created jobs and economic development opportunities. It has also protected 7.2 million people nationwide from hazards like landslides and flooding that result from leaving damaged lands unaddressed.
“What is going to happen to the existing 300 or more AMD Treatment Systems in Pennsylvania that have restored hundreds of miles of streams when we don’t have the funding source for the future operation and maintenance of them? I’ll tell you what will happen: every stream mile restored will be lost and polluted once again, putting us back to square one before SMCRA was enacted,” said Hughes of EPCAMR. “All of our efforts will have been for nothing these last decades where in many instances — even the native trout populations that were restored. The number of miles of streams impaired from AMD are only going to go up from 5,500. I don’t even want to fathom what that number is going to become right now. I’m very upset that our leadership in Washington DC couldn’t do what’s right for our coalfield communities that continue to suffer. The fact that my children and grandchildren are going to have to continue to live with this legacy makes me very angry. I’ve advocated all that I could, to the best of my ability for my entire career and feel defeated at this point. However, I will continue to speak up on behalf of our coalfield communities across Appalachia that deserved more attention and prioritization from our leadership across the country that we helped to build.”
Though advocates are eager to see the proposed investment voted into law, there have been several concerns noted with the proposal. Given the growing estimates for the cost of fully reclaiming AML sites, advocates urge Congress to pass the $11.3 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill but also to build in full reauthorization of the AML fee, which is a tax on current coal production that has been used to fund AML reclamation since SMCRA was enacted. The bipartisan infrastructure legislation reauthorizes the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fee for 13 years at only 80% of its current level — a 20% cut to the per ton coal fee that companies pay towards the cost of reclaiming mines. Advocates would also like to see better provisions for the treatment of acid mine drainage and other water pollution issues commonly associated with former coal mines, as well as provisions to encourage local hiring for mine reclamation jobs.
“Anyone living in the coal region knows what’s at stake with Congress’s decisions today. Our landscape has been altered for too long, and it’s time to come together and find solutions that work for everyone. Reauthorization of SMCRA means cleaner water, safer communities, and better jobs for communities around our nation. We look forward to working with our elected officials to continue to advocate for this important legislation,” said Marissa Lautzenheiser, Director of Northern Programs for Rural Action. “Rural Action has spent almost three decades working on projects supported, in part, by SMCRA funds. We know the funding is effective, needed, and well-spent. We are disappointed that the progress we’ve seen is endangered by the lack of reauthorization of the funding. It is imperative that we come together, as the nation that was built with energy from our hills, and find solutions to support this important legislation. While reauthorization of SMCRA may just one of the many pieces of legislation Congress is discussing today, it has an outsized effect on the Appalachian region of our nation. We have worked with these funds for decades, and firmly believe that any dollar invested in cleaning our waterways and stabilizing our mining region is money well spent. We need to figure out a way to reauthorize this legislation before there is any disruption in restoration progress – we have worked too hard to see our recovery slip away. Reauthorization of SMCRA needs to be a priority for our entire elected body.”