NOTE: This page is about reclaiming coal mine sites that were abandoned prior to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) went into effect. Read about reclaiming post-1977 coal sites.
Abandoned Mine Lands Fund
The history of coal mining in Appalachia goes back to the late 1700s — and until 1977, there was no federal law mandating that companies fix land and water damaged by mining. Today, thousands of open mine shafts, crumbling highwalls and contaminated waterways remain, leftovers from coal mining operations that were abandoned prior to the passage of the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.
This federal law established minimum requirements for coal companies to reclaim land and water at mine sites going forward. To address the massive backlog of abandoned mine problems and ensure that the industry as a whole takes responsibility for mining’s legacy, lawmakers instituted a per-ton fee on new coal production and directed that fee toward cleanup of existing sites.
Over the last four decades, this fee has provided $5.7 billion to clean up mine sites that threaten public health and safety, including open mine shafts, highwalls, mine fires, acid mine drainage, erosion and subsidence.
But the abandoned mine lands fee is set to expire in September 2021, unless Congress acts to extend it again.
Reauthorization of this fee is crucial. The official federal inventory of abandoned mine lands (AML) sites estimates that there is $11.5 billion of unfunded reclamation needs. Due to shortcomings in the federal inventory, however, this estimate is likely very low. Currently, about $2.3 billion remains in the AML fund, far less than what is needed.
Since 1977, Congress has voted to decrease the fee multiple times. A decline in coal production has also reduced annual revenues, and the fee has never been corrected for inflation. The current fee structure is about 23 percent of what the original would be if adjusted for inflation.
Appalachian Voices is one of many groups in Appalachia and across the country that are advocating for reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land Program.
Mapping the Legacy of Coal
Visit our special ARCGIS project that charts the legacy of coal mining in the United States.
The RECLAIM ACT
Another way abandoned mine sites hurt local communities is by impeding economic development. Unaddressed issues such as open coal shafts or landslide hazards add additional costs to new construction or leave hazards that local communities have to pay to clean up.
Some of these communities have been using a grant fund called AML Pilot for several years to fund AML cleanup, and boost economic development projects sited on or near abandoned mine lands. The COVID-19 economic recession that began in 2020 further added to the need for job creation and business development initiatives to help lift coal-impacted communities out of economic decline.
The RECLAIM Act currently in Congress would create a more permanent reclamation and economic development program and commit $1 billion from the AML Fund to accelerate cleanup of dangerous and polluting abandoned coal mines.
Strategically, the funds would be used to reclaim abandoned mine sites linked to future or ongoing community or commercial projects. This could include public recreation facilities, agriculture, renewable energy, recreational tourism, wildlife habitat and other projects that take place on or near abandoned mine lands on public and private lands. These locations could serve as long-term economic opportunities that create permanent local jobs, helping to lay a foundation for financial diversity in communities affected by the declining coal industry.
Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition
Established in 2017, the multi-state Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition provides expert resources to identify, develop, and fund innovative reclamation projects in Appalachia. The coalition also advocates for a more just and equitable implementation of federal funds and supports shared learning among regional reclamation practitioners and stakeholders. The Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition is composed of Appalachian Voices, Coalfield Development Corporation, and Rural Action, with technical assistance and added capacity provided by Downstream Strategies
A version of this idea is already underway through the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot program. Congress created the AML Pilot program in 2016 after repeated calls to accelerate Appalachian mine remediation while supporting economic development efforts in transitioning communities. Since then, legislators have allocated $665 million from the U.S. Treasury, not the AML fund, to be used by six states and three tribes through the AML Pilot program.
The AML Pilot program is similar to the RECLAIM Act, but there are a few key differences. Unlike the pilot program, the RECLAIM Act requires public engagement in project proposals before funds are released, setting clearer standards for transparency and accountability. And while projects under the pilot program frequently include environmental cleanup, they are not required to, whereas mine land remediation would always be required for projects funded by the RECLAIM Act.
The RECLAIM Act has broad, bipartisan support. In 2018, 32 local governments and representative bodies from Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Virginia passed resolutions urging Congress to pass the RECLAIM Act, as well as extend the black lung excise tax.
AML Pilot Projects Map
Appalachian Voices worked with the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition to develop an interactive map and detailed list of potential and funded AML Pilot projects.