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Program seeking to link work on abandoned mine land with economic development could be improved

AMLER program provides grants to clean up land and spur job creation; the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition has recommendations to make it better

This is Devil’s Bathtub, one of the first AMLER projects in Virginia. The project funding helped to improve access to the trailhead and close mine portals along the trail. Photo by Michael Schrader.

With the ongoing decline of the coal industry, many coal communities are facing a double-whammy from the economic hit from massive job losses and the blight, pollution and danger of abandoned, unreclaimed mine land.

The Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization program, formerly known as the AML pilot program, was launched by the federal government to help coal-impacted communities find ways to put abandoned mine land back to productive use, create jobs and spur economic growth.

Since 2016, Congress has appropriated $777.5 million to the program, and President Biden’s recently announced FY 2023 budget allocates an additional $115 million. The funding currently goes to the six Appalachian states with the most AML in the federal inventory (Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) as well as the 3 tribes with the most AML (Crow, Hopi, and Navajo).

The program has resulted in many successful projects that have generated significant economic returns for communities.

AMLER is different from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, which is funded by fees paid by operating coal companies to reclaim mines abandoned prior to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. AMLER funding is from the general treasury, and Congress has placed fewer restrictions on how it can be spent, leaving OSMRE to develop guidance for how states and tribes implement the program.

The AML program funds can generally only be spent to clean up physical features left unreclaimed by the coal industry decades ago, but the AMLER program funding can be spent on either reclamation or economic development projects sited on or adjacent to AML sites.

AMLER has supported numerous successful projects to date, but the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, in coordination with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and additional partners throughout Appalachia, has come up with ways to make the program more accessible, effective and transparent.

The coalition, a multi-state group of organizations consisting of Appalachian Voices, Coalfield Development Corporation and Rural Action, with technical assistance provided by Downstream Strategies, came together in 2017 to promote innovative mine reclamation practices in the region and has helped secure funding for 17 AMLER projects. This first-hand experience and in-depth involvement with the AMLER process across several states helped inform a list of 10 recommendations the coalition released on March 30.

The recommendations draw on experience and observation of AMLER projects and processes across the nation; they highlight, for instance, states like Ohio where agencies have assisted applicants by helping develop cost estimates and impact studies, or Virginia, which has developed a transparent project scoring matrix. The recommendations also address specific issues experienced by project applicants and community groups that work on abandoned mine land issues.

“The AMLER program is not administered consistently across the different states and tribes,” said Joey James, Principal at Downstream Strategies. “There are varying degrees of transparency and technical assistance from the program administration staff, and different application and review processes for awarding grants. Our recommendations build off the best practices we have seen to improve access to the program.”

The coalition believes these recommendations will help ensure that AMLER funding is more accessible to the communities that need it most. If adopted, these recommendations will help the program do even more to support transformative investments in coal-impacted and energy transition communities.

The recommendations

Here is a brief summary of the recommendations:

  1. Increase public awareness of the program and make informational materials about the application process more uniform and accessible. Currently, public engagement is left to state and tribal programs. Some states, like Kentucky, have gone to great lengths to educate the public and make the application process easier, resulting in an increasing number of applicants.
  2. Make sure that state and tribal AML programs have the capacity to either assist with the application process or provide technical assistance grants to third parties. Again, some states do a better job assisting with AMLER applications, helping develop cost estimates and providing other technical assistance. In other states, nonprofit organizations must provide that assistance.
  3. Support feasibility and project design studies. If states and tribal programs could devote a small portion of AMLER money to feasibility and project design studies or help applicants find other federal funding for such studies, it could help applicants with innovative ideas but little economic development expertise refine proposals to make them more successful.
  4. Collaborate across federal agencies to provide guidance about when AMLER and other grants can be used as matching funds on other project applications. There’s much confusion about when AMLER, AML, Appalachian Regional Commission, Economic Development Administration and other federal grant programs can be considered as matching funds. Clarifying that and easing rules where allowed could help these communities make the most of available funding.
  5. Create a more transparent project selection process. Currently, the selection process varies greatly across state and tribal programs — and some of these programs have become highly politicized. A clear, standardized evaluation process, including a scoring matrix, could help ensure that projects most likely to meet the intended goals of the program are funded.
  6. Take steps to ensure that more projects have a reclamation component and that AMLER funds are used to create a unique and needed funding niche in coal-impacted communities. The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement should track the amount of AMLER funding going to reclamation compared to economic development and encourage the use of AML funds for the reclamation component to free AMLER resources for the economic development portion.
  7. Create program review requirements that encourage new stakeholders and partners and require justification for repeat awards. In some states, single projects are often awarded funds across multiple grant cycles — despite the competitiveness of the grant process and the fact that there are significantly more requests than available funds. Steps should be taken to ensure these projects are subject to fair and rigorous review.
  8. Provide additional guidance to states and tribes on the redistribution of previously awarded AMLER funds for failed projects. Sometimes projects stall or fail, leaving unspent money — in West Virginia, there is approximately $100 million in unspent funds for approved projects that are not progressing. There should be a process to identify projects that have failed and redistribute their funding.
  9. Increase AMLER program transparency with regular public reports. OSMRE should provide annual public reports about the program, including a list of projects that received grants and a summary of the process used by each state or tribal program to solicit, develop and select projects.
  10. OSMRE should increase funding requests for the AMLER program for future budget cycles. The program has helped spark new economic activity, create jobs and increase wages. OSMRE should build on that success by asking for more money to provide grants.

A committed advocate for clean energy policy, education and outreach, Chelsea is our Legislative Director based in our Norton, Va., office. When she is not advancing renewable energy, you can likely find her enjoying one of Southwest Virginia's many scenic trails.


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