APPALACHIA — More than a dozen community groups from across coal country announced their support of U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb’s RENEW (Revitalize, Enhance, and Nurture in Expanded Ways Our Abandoned Mine Lands) Act shortly after the legislation’s introduction today. The groups hailed H.R. 7937 as an important start to address the crisis created by mines left unreclaimed in the last decade — something their organizations have been fighting to draw attention to for years.
“We’re doing everything we can to first make sure that coal companies complete reclamation of their mines, as required by law,” said Erin Savage, Senior Program Manager at Appalachian Voices. “But in cases where the company has gone bankrupt or dissolved, there may not be adequate bonds to ensure proper cleanup. As a last resort, the RENEW Act will provide communities with a back-up source of funding for reclamation. Otherwise, the burden of unreclaimed coal mines falls on local communities that have already given so much to provide power for the country for over a century.”
Last year, Congress approved $11.3 billion in investments over 15 years in the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s (OSMRE) Abandoned Mine Land program, which covers sites mined before the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). While these investments are critical to the health, safety, and economic strength of thousands of communities, they do not support reclamation for mine lands permitted after SMCRA was implemented. The RENEW Act addresses these post-1977 mine lands. Specifically, it invests $385 million per year to establish a grant program with OSMRE. States and tribes can apply to this program for funding to cover the reclamation bond shortfall for post-1977 coal mines that have become their responsibility after coal companies forfeited their bonds.
“While SMCRA established key regulatory and reclamation standards, it failed to take into account that the coal industry would inevitably decline,” said Lyndsay Tarus, Engagement Coordinator with the Alliance for Appalachia. “The RENEW Act addresses these failures and is a direct result of solutions brought forward by people and communities most impacted by the polluting mines that companies have failed to clean up.”
Uncertainty around the future of the coal industry nationwide is exposing the deep cracks in the coal mine clean-up process. Recent coal company bankruptcies reveal that the system that was designed to pay for reclamation under SMCRA is failing, with funds set aside by coal mine operators often insufficient to cover the price tag. Currently, if a coal company abandons its reclamation obligations, reclamation bonds are used by the state or tribal regulatory agency to complete the cleanup. However, states have implemented bonding programs that may not cover actual reclamation liability, and coal companies leave mine sites sitting idle for long periods of time, making the cleanup process more expensive. This leaves local communities to bear the burden of dangerous and polluting former mine sites. As the coal industry continues its downward trend, it is crucial that Congress fix this broken system to protect nearby communities.
The investments of the RENEW Act would help create jobs in local communities suited to the unique skill sets of unemployed coal miners. These jobs would involve repairing land and waterways, treating polluted waters, sealing and filling abandoned mine entries, and developing erosion prevention measures to prevent dangerous land and mudslides.
“The RENEW Act would be an incredible win-win for Appalachian communities — creating jobs while cleaning up the environment,” said Dana Kuhnline, Campaign Manager for ReImagine Appalachia. “These companies extracted enormous wealth from our region for the profit of owners and shareholders, and then deserted their obligations to clean up their mess. Local communities should not be abandoned to carry the burden of pollution and unemployment. After the sacrifices made to fuel American prosperity, we owe it to coal communities to support their work to build a brighter future.”
“We applaud Congressman Lamb for introducing this vital piece of legislation to help communities historically dependent on the coal industry transition to new economic opportunities, while cleaning up pollution,” said Bill Price, Senior Organizing Manager for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in West Virginia. “It’s essential that we continue to fight for West Virginia communities that have been dependent on the coal industry so that they can build diverse, thriving economies with good paying jobs and long-term stability. They deserve nothing less.”
The crisis of reclamation at post-1977 coal mines is already burdening states and tribes with millions in liabilities that will likely increase as currently operating mines close down amid the long-term decline of the coal industry. According to a recent report, in West Virginia, 206,000 acres of current coal mines will require cleanup at an estimated cost of between $2.3 to $3.6 billion. However, available bonds total just $1.1 billion — or only between 31-49% of reclamation liability in the state.
Similarly, total available bonds will only cover 56-65% of reclamation liability in Pennsylvania, 27-33% of reclamation liability in Ohio, and 37-47% of reclamation liability in Kentucky. When failing coal companies do not complete reclamation, this leaves the state responsible for the burden of cleaning up the remainder of these mines or allowing them to sit idle and be a liability to the health, safety and economy of local communities.
“In Kentucky, we’re already seeing the consequences of inadequate bonding,” said Rebecca Shelton of Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “The 2019 Blackjewel bankruptcy resulted in dozens of permits turned over to the state for reclamation but there isn’t enough money to reclaim these sites well. The lack of funds has caused drawn-out deliberations to try and determine how to maximize reclamation with the limited funds available. Ultimately that means that hazardous mine sites have been sitting idle for over two years and still reclamation work hasn’t begun. This kind of delay isn’t fair to landowners, is hazardous to communities, and ultimately delays the region’s ability to transition and use those sites for alternative uses.”
The RENEW Act will be considered alongside other coal-related bills, including the STREAM Act (H.R. 7283), at a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee on June 9. More information about the hearing and a link to a livestream will be available on the committee’s website.
The following organizations announced their endorsement of the RENEW ACT:
Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center – Appalachian Voices – Breathe Project – Center for Coalfield Justice – Clearfork Community Institute – Coal River Mountain Watch – Earth Action, Inc. – Friends for Environmental Justice – Kentuckians For The Commonwealth – Pennsylvania Jewish Earth Alliance – ReImagine Appalachia – Sierra Club – The Alliance for Appalachia – Virginia Organizing – West Virginia Council of Churches – Woodland Community Land Trust