The US coal industry has been swamped with bad news lately, with the recent bankruptcies of Blackjewel and Murray Energy leading to major hardships for miners, their families and surrounding communities. As we attempt to address these immediate hardships, we need to also remember painful long-term legacies of coal such as rising black lung rates and the growing problems of abandoned mine lands (AML). This latter problem is especially thorny, as former coal regions face major environmental problems such as water contamination, land subsidence, and a dearth of funding for land reclamation. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement manages a federal AML reclamation fund with a current funding pool valued at $2.3 billion. While this is a sizable sum, the estimated cost to remediate current AML sites exceeds $10 billion. (You can see a map of AML sites here.)
Remediating abandoned mine lands is essential if we truly want to revitalize coal-impacted communities in Appalachia and elsewhere. We will need additional funds to support reclamation and to build capacity in impact communities. Some interesting pilot projects are underway, thanks to the new AML Reclamation Economic Development Pilot program and other initiatives, such as the POWER program for coal-reliant regions. (See the latest edition of Appalachian Voices for nice summary of current issues.) There’s lots of work to do, but there are also lots of opportunities where strategic investments can have huge impacts. For a look at these opportunities, check out A New Horizon, an excellent new compendium of worthwhile and catalytic AML-related projects in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. Investing in land reclamation can bring short and medium-term benefits in the form of new economic opportunities and new local capacity, while also remediating long term environmental damage from past mining activities. This is the right and fair thing to do for coal-impacted communities.