US coal communities get historic $11B to clean up abandoned mines

The funds support regions and workers grappling firsthand with the transition to clean energy.

A pond in Logan County, West Virginia filled with runoff wastewater from a mountaintop-removal coal mine shows evidence of pollution. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
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The transition to clean energy won’t be complete without cleaning up the messes left behind by dirty energy. The federal government took a new step toward that goal this week.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced the release of nearly $725 million in funding for cleaning up old coal-mining facilities. It’s the first tranche of a record $11.3 billion dedicated to coal cleanup in last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to be disbursed over the next 15 years. States and tribes with abandoned coal mines will be able to apply for a portion of the funding in the coming weeks.

This is a historic investment in mine cleanup, which up until now has been funded by fees on coal mining imposed under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. That fee program has raised a total of $8 billion, targeted at sites that were mined before the law passed, but that’s not nearly enough to tackle the many polluted sites left behind by the coal industry. The infrastructure law extended the fee collection program through 2034 and invested still more in coal cleanup.

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That’s where the new $11 billion allocation comes in.

In the history of the program, we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Eric Dixon, a senior researcher studying economic development and energy transition in Appalachia at the Ohio River Valley Institute. What we’ll clean up in the next 15 years is more than what we’ve already cleaned up over 44 years.”

The Navajo Nation and 22 state governments can apply for funds that will be divvied up based on the amount of coal mined in each jurisdiction prior to 1977. The money can fund work to close dangerous mine shafts, reclaim unstable slopes, improve water quality by treating acid mine drainage, and restore water supplies damaged by mining,” according to a government statement.

The states have their own coal reclamation programs that will prioritize sites to address, draw up engineering plans and bid out the projects to contractors, Dixon noted. In the past, states often had to focus their limited funds on tackling emergencies that posed an imminent threat to people. 

They could never get to those longer-term projects because they didn’t have the money,” Dixon said. “[The new funding] will give states the ability to do more than the emergency and immediate-threat type projects.” 

Mining reclamation will inject new funds into rural areas, many of which are struggling economically due in part to the decline of the coal industry. The law allows states to prioritize projects that employ former coal-industry workers.

The exact nature of the economic boost, though, will depend on the labor standards that states implement as they spend the cleanup money. The legislation does require projects it funds to pay workers at prevailing wages. 

That wasn’t the case with the projects previously, so that’s already a step in the right direction,” Dixon said.

The cleanup investments can also be expected to boost former coal regions’ economies indirectly by removing lingering hazards to residents’ health and well-being.

If you have a pile of coal waste in your tiny town, it makes it harder to start a business,” Dixon said. We need to fix what’s broken here to move the economy forward.” 

And the positive effects will extend beyond coal regions. Old mines can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas that inflicts severe damage in the near term, so remediation projects that plug leaks are also helping to fight climate change.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.