Infrastructure Bill Provides Historic Funding for Coal Mine Reclamation, but Only Covers Half of the Crisis

In a huge win for communities in coal mining regions, the Infrastructure Bill provides $11.3 billion over the next fifteen years to clean up coal mine sites that were abandoned prior to 1977. Those funds will go to the “Abandoned Mine Lands (AML)” program created in 1977 to clean up thousands of existing orphaned sites. But even as those funds address a forty-year-old toxic legacy, coal mine operators have begun a new round of mine abandonments which are not eligible for these funds. While we celebrate the much needed AML funding, we must take additional urgent action to protect communities and ensure that forty years from now we’re not still waiting to address today’s abandonments.

The coal mining industry, in steady decline from its past peaks of employment and production, is crashing through the safety nets put in place to ensure that modern mine sites will always be cleaned up. The rapid and irreversible industry-wide decline means that coal mining companies are laying off workers and shutting down mine sites, even while significant reclamation work remains to be done. Nothing can be done to reverse the market forces that are ending demand for dirty fossil fuels like coal. But there’s an opportunity to do right by these workers and communities by providing federal funds to get people to work reclaiming these sites, and finish the obligations coal companies shirked.

Unreclaimed mine sites release methane gas that pollutes our air, leach toxins into our water, and leave communities vulnerable to landslides and flooding. To protect communities from the hazards of unreclaimed coal mines, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), creating the AML program for already-abandoned mines, and requiring mine operators to set aside reclamation bonds to ensure sufficient money would be available to fully clean up all new mines. The idea was that the bonds would guarantee that even if a mine operator went out of business or otherwise abandoned a mine, the government could use the bond to cover the costs of clean up. But the actual program put in place by Congress was riddled with loopholes, and these loopholes were then stretched even wider as state regulators in many states completely failed to hold mine operators accountable to the program, and to the communities whose sacrifices enriched them. 

The general problem with the bonding requirements imposed under SMCRA is that they failed to fully embrace the reality that some day the coal industry would experience a widespread, terminal decline. As a result, they employ a completely flawed form of risk spreading, where healthy companies are expected to pick up the slack from those in distress. Today, the term “healthy coal company” is an oxymoron. The belief when SMCRA was passed was that reclamation bonds would be needed only rarely, and then only to cover obligations at a single mine or by a single mine operator, while the rest of the industry chugged along.

Now that mine abandonments have become much more common and widespread, it’s clear that all forms of reclamation bonding are vulnerable to the sector-wide collapse of the mining industry, including pool bonding, self-bonding, and even surety bonding. In West Virginia, regulators recently warned that the failure of a single distressed mining company—ERP Environmental Fund—not only would threaten to wipe out the state’s entire bond pool, but could also bankrupt the company’s private, third party surety bond provider. These findings were later confirmed in an audit commissioned by the West Virginia legislature

The stark reality is that reclamation bonding is illusory for hundreds, if not thousands, of coal mines that are likely to be abandoned in the coming years, including those that have already effectively been abandoned, with sites idled, equipment removed, and workers laid off. For instance, the recent liquidation of Blackjewel, which acquired the majority of its mines from prior bankruptcies, like Patriot and Alpha, resulted in the immediate abandonment of 33 mines in Kentucky, with dozens more likely to be abandoned by the end of the year.

The only way to soften the blow for the communities and workers who have relied on the coal mining industry for so long is to ensure that any financial shortages are covered, even if this means the government foots the bill. This means paying miners to get to work fully reclaiming all coal mines where the permittee is unable to bear the cost, and where reclamation bonds are insufficient. The benefit of funding coal mine reclamation is that it not only helps the communities free themselves from the dangers of these mine sites, but it also provides jobs for miners who have the specialized skills to complete the work quickly and safely. Recent estimates suggest outstanding coal reclamation in Appalachia and the Western U.S. could employ tens of thousands of coal miners across the country.  Recognizing the need for additional resources to complete mine reclamation, the West Virginia legislature recently passed a resolution formally requesting federal funds.

This is not to say that regulators shouldn’t also use all available tools to compel mine operators to complete as much reclamation as possible while the operators have the resources to do so. Regulators must force active coal mines to conduct reclamation as they go, so that there is the smallest amount possible of disturbed and unreclaimed land on site at any given time. Mine operators must not be allowed to let their operations go idle while reclamation work remains undone; such mines are unlikely to ever resume operations. And regulators must transition mine operators away from risky forms of bonding, like self bonds and pool bonds, while more rigorously evaluating surety bond providers.

It is possible, and unfortunate, that some of the mining companies who have profited from years of coal extraction—while failing to fully compensate workers and communities—could benefit from a federal reclamation program. But the reality is that even after four years of the pro-coal Trump administration, the majority of these companies simply do not have the necessary capital to fully clean up the mines or create jobs for the workers. Allowing the present crisis to unfold without financial intervention by the government simply shifts the burden to the communities who must live next to these abandoned sites, and that outcome is unacceptable.

Congress’ recent effort to secure $11 billion to complete reclamation at the coal mines that have been abandoned for at least 44 years is historic. However, the communities who live near recently-abandoned or soon-to-be-abandoned coal mines must not be made to wait that long. The sooner we acknowledge the failures of SMCRA, the sooner we can get to work creating new jobs and reclaiming these sites.