U.S. House panel probes slow cleanup of ‘exploited’ coal mining sites

By: - June 17, 2021 12:15 am

A field of coal is seen near the Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

A U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee examined the cleanup needs for regions transitioning away from coal production Tuesday, with witnesses representing coal workers and Native American communities saying energy companies should be responsible for returning the land to its pre-mining state.

Much of the conversation at the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing centered on the concept of  “environmental justice” and the restoration of mining sites, including at recently closed coal production locations in Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona.

“These communities, and especially Indian Country, have been really exploited,” subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal, (D-Calif.), said. “It’s a really horrible, horrible situation.”

But Republicans on the panel criticized opposition to fossil fuels as “job killing,” and said the shift to cleaner energy sources has resulted in employment losses and a hit to economic development in mining regions. Some Western states like Wyoming have been able to strike a balance between environmental protection and fossil fuel production, they said.

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, (D-Calif.), suggested Wyoming’s experience did not remove responsibility from “deadbeat coal companies” that created “very real burdens and hardship” for struggling communities.

Coal in decline

Coal use has declined by 46% since its peak in 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a U.S. Energy Department agency.

That decline has led to the industry abandoning mines, often without the cleanup required by federal law, said Mary Cromer, the deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, a group that advocates for coal workers and others who live near mining sites.

“As coal declines, coal mining regulations are failing to keep up, and coal companies are increasingly abandoning their environmental obligations, leaving too little in bond money to cover reclamation costs,” she said. “Coalfield communities worry they will be forever burdened with hazardous and unusable land and polluted streams.”

One particularly affected community is the Navajo Nation, home to the Kayenta and Black Mesa coal mines and the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station that closed in 2019.

Navajo people bore the brunt of the job losses when those sites closed in 2019, as well as the environmental degradation from decades of mining that still hasn’t been mitigated, said Nicole Horseherder, the executive director of the Arizona-based Native American environmental group Tó Nizhóní Ání.

Mining “scarred” Navajo land and polluted the local water supply, she said. Leases require Peabody Western Energy, the operator of the Northern Arizona mines and plant, to return the land to the same quality it was before mining, but the company hasn’t met that standard and the federal government has done little to force the company, she said.

Congress should “require a significant mine permit revision” before renewing permits for companies like Peabody to force them to complete cleanup, Horseherder said.

Republicans said federal bureaucracy can slow the process of mine reclamation and held up Wyoming as an example of success.

The state’s coal mines are managed “in a manner that protects the state and provides for responsible coal resource development,” Kyle Wendtland, the administrator of the Wyoming Land Quality Division, testified.

The state annually revises the bonds mining companies pay to ensure there is enough money to reclaim an abandoned mine.

Jobs in mining

Members of both parties agreed closings of coal plants have had painful economic consequences for some areas, but disagreed about what to do about it.

Republicans blamed Democratic policies discouraging fossil fuels for closing the Navajo Generating Station and other sites across the country.

Putting coal plants out of business was unfair to tribes because it took away jobs and cheap energy and made tribes responsible for the global issue of climate change, Republicans said.

Reclamation and cleanup could provide job opportunities for miners and other workers affected by the decline of coal, Horseherder said, echoing a component of the “just transition” away from fossil fuels that President Joe Biden and others have promoted to help displaced workers find new employment.

But Republicans argued that was insufficient.

The subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Pete Stauber, said the average salary for the mostly Navajo workforce in the mines of Kayenta was north of $100,000. The jobs paid much better and lasted longer than the temporary jobs of a cleanup project, he said.

“Is losing hundreds and hundreds of union, Native American jobs with an average salary of $117,000 per year part of a just transition?” asked Stauber, who represents a mining region in Northern Minnesota.

Fossil fuel production and environmental protection can co-exist, several Republican members said.

Other witnesses called on the federal government to establish better safeguards to ensure that mining companies pay for cleaning up abandoned mines.

Joseph G. Pizarchik, the director of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement during the Obama administration, called on Congress to ban self-bonds. Self-bonds allow companies to offer only a promise to reclaim the site without a separate upfront payment to ensure the funding is available. Pizarchik called self-bonds “essentially no bond at all.”

“It is clear that the regulations that govern the use and replacement of self-bonds do not work and cannot be fixed,” he said.

Rep. Diana DeGette, (D-Colo.), praised her state’s Office of Justice Transition, a Department of Labor and Employment agency that provides resources to displaced coal workers, and asked if a federal equivalent would be helpful.

“That would be tremendously helpful,” Horseherder answered.

Cromer said there are several strategies lawmakers should pursue to keep job losses to a minimum. The problem was too large, she said, for any single policy to be enough.

“Because our region has been so dependent on this one industry for so long—and that historically has provided high-wage jobs—there’s no one idea, there’s no one business that’s going to be able to come in and make sure that that transition occurs,” she said.



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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.