The Modern Mine Cleanup Crisis

Appalachian coal communities have powered the country for more than a century. But as demand for coal declines, companies are often failing to repair the land they have already mined, cutting corners to save money.

Coal companies are supposed to repair damaged land and water as they mine to help limit harm to people, wildlife and waterways. But many companies are failing to clean up after themselves, and state and federal authorities aren’t using the tools available to them to hold coal companies accountable.

More than 600,000 acres need to be cleaned up at current mines in the East. “Zombie mines” are leaving people in danger of landslides, increased flood damage and other problems, and changes are urgently needed.

Gas well 'Ultimate Warrior 1', Montoursville, Penn. Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography
Gas well 'Ultimate Warrior 1', Montoursville, Penn. Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography
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The failure of the mine reclamation system

The process of restabilizing mined lands, planting vegetation, fixing safety hazards and repairing water pollution is known as mine reclamation. Before 1977, coal companies were not required to reclaim their mines, and they abandoned thousands of polluting sites. These decades-old abandoned mines are being reclaimed through the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which received a much-needed $11.3 billion boost in 2021 through the bipartisan infrastructure law.

When Congress passed the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, they wanted to be sure no mine was ever abandoned again without cleanup funds in place. The law requires coal companies to clean up disturbed areas soon after mining and to post bonds that show that they have funds available for cleanup if the responsible company fails to do so.

But today, the mine cleanup system is failing as more companies declare bankruptcy or avoid reclamation. For years, coal companies have failed to put aside enough money to pay for cleanup, leaving many states without sufficient funds to clean up these sites. Coal-mining communities in Appalachia and around the country are already experiencing a new wave of abandoned mines — and this time, there’s no backup fund to deal with the mess left behind.

Stop Zombie Coal Mines

Functionally abandoned coal mines, or “zombie mines,” put people at risk, threaten our water and drag down our local economies. Learn how a coalition of more than 50 groups across the United States are addressing this serious problem.

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drawing of surface mine

EXPLORE: Mining & Cleanup 101

Walk through this interactive interface to learn about the coal mining and mine cleanup process


REPORT: The Costs of Delaying Reclamation at Modern-era Mines

A 2021 examination of the outstanding reclamation needs at modern surface coal mines in the East found more than 633,000 acres in need of cleanup, at an estimated cost of $7.5 to $9.8 billion. Bonds available for cleanup amounted to $3.8 billion.

Appalachian Voices staff and partners joined the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to inspect reclamation progress at an A&G Coal Corporation mine in February 2021.

The Problems with the Mine Cleanup Bonding System

Four reasons why mine reclamation bonds aren’t funding mine cleanup as intended


Time-lapse: Mountaintop Removal Before and After

Satellite images from 1984 to 2022 show the expansion of three mountaintop removal coal mines over the years and the lack of remediation at many locations.