Following the U.S. Senate’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Tuesday, advocates from coal communities in Kentucky and elsewhere across the country celebrated the legislation’s historic investments in creating jobs by cleaning up abandoned coal mines.
The $11.3 billion in Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding, which includes $1.15 billion for Kentucky, would be a massive increase compared to the current annual distribution for AML reclamation and restoration. Over the last 40 years of the AML program, states have received just over $6 billion in total grant distributions. This investment is nearly double that amount in just 15 years.
While the full cost of reclaiming all remaining AML sites will likely exceed $20 billion, this funding would roughly equal the reclamation costs currently in the federal database. All told, this investment represents one of the largest investments in coal communities in decades if passed into law.
The successful passage of this new funding for abandoned mine lands represents a major victory for advocates from coal communities who have been fighting for years to spur economic development in the places they live and work through coal mine reclamation. AML sites pose health and safety risks to residents and stand as barriers to economic growth. These crucial infrastructure projects will put people to work repairing land and waterways damaged by mining, treating polluted waters, sealing and filling abandoned mine entries, and developing erosion prevention measures to prevent dangerous land and mudslides.
“For years, the Kentucky AML program has been operating in triage mode. In the last year and a half, over 30 dangerous landslides associated with AML sites have occurred. These slides threaten the lives of eastern Kentucky residents and destroy homes. This increase in funding is the only solution that can prevent these catastrophes,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy & Organizing for the Whitesburg-based Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
Reclamation projects have already shown positive impacts on local communities, and many more projects are poised to create jobs with federal investments. Last month, West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies assessed the economic impact of the legislation’s $11.3 billion in new Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding for just Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia.
In West Virginia, 1,730 jobs would be created and $4.3 billion in economic output generated over 15 years. Ohio would add 680 jobs and $1.8 billion, while Virginia would add 300 jobs and $790 million. All together this analysis found that annual distributions to West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia will increase by about 8 to 10 times. Similar benefits are expected in coal-impacted areas from coast to coast.
“Living in a state with thousands of abandoned mines that have sat unreclaimed for generations, there is no doubt this is a good thing for Colorado. The money from this package will clean up the mines and heal our landscapes,” Roger Carver, former President of UMWA Local 1281 and Western Colorado Alliance member. “At the same time, I am concerned that we are not taking care of the whole problem. The reduction of the abandoned mine land fee can leave future sites unreclaimed and lets companies off the hook for cleaning up their own mess.”
In 1977, Congress established the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Since then, the Abandoned Mine Lands program has eliminated over 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed over 1,000 miles of dangerous highwalls, restored water supplies to countless residents of coalfield communities, and created jobs and economic development opportunities. It has also protected 7.2 million people nationwide from hazards like landslides and flooding that result from leaving damaged lands unaddressed. In addition to the $11.3 billion investment over 15 years, the legislation also reauthorizes the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fee for 13 years at 80% of its level. Without reauthorization, the AML program will expire at the end of September this year.
This legislation provides $11.3 billion in clean-up funding over 15 years for Kentucky and 24 other states and three Tribes. Funding will be distributed based on a state or tribe’s coal production prior to the passage of the SMCRA in 1977.
Kentucky would receive the fourth-largest amount behind Pennsylvania ($3.8 billion), West Virginia ($2.18 billion), and Illinois ($1.17 billion).
For years, coal community advocates have pushed for AML investments and the RECLAIM Act to turn abandoned mine liabilities into economic hubs. By equaling the scale of the current official AML liability, these investments represent major success for their efforts that can be built upon in future policymaking. However, while the official inventory of AML sites puts the cleanup costs for construction alone at more than $11 billion, new estimates indicate upwards of $20 billion in investment is needed to reclaim and restore remaining abandoned mines throughout the country. Given the growing estimates for the cost of fully reclaiming AML sites, advocates urge Congress to pass this bill but also to build in full reauthorization of the AML fee, which is a tax on current coal production that has been used to fund AML reclamation since SMCRA was enacted.
“Coal reclamation is supposed to be funded by the coal industry, not taxpayers. It is deeply frustrating to see a departure from the commitment that was made to coal communities when the AML fee was first created more than four decades ago. This is a dangerous precedent that leaves taxpayers and communities at risk, as the coal industry is increasingly walking away from mines and this retreat signals Congress could be ready to continue to let them off the hook,” said Shannon Anderson, staff attorney and organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“The Abandoned Mine Land fee was created in order to hold the coal industry accountable for its historic damage to community and environmental health. The reduction of the AML fee now lets the industry off the hook at a time when companies are also shirking their reclamation responsibilities for modern mines through bankruptcy and by idling mines. Congress needs to ensure that coal-impacted communities are taken care of without shifting reclamation responsibilities from coal companies to taxpayers,” said Chelsea Barnes, Legislative Director for Appalachian Voices.
To ensure maximum impact for communities, the legislation should also ensure local labor is used in these projects, set clear project labor agreements, and prioritize local input so that funding goes to cleaning up the sites that pose the most serious risk to community health and safety.