Abandoned mine funding critical to Appalachian infrastructure

By: - October 25, 2021 1:00 am

The J.M. Stuart Station is seen next to the Ohio River on September 10, 2019 near Manchester, Ohio. The power plant closed in 2018 and had been in operation for 48 years. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.

Appalachian regions are nervously awaiting passage of a federal infrastructure bill so they can avoid job loss and conservation set-backs related to abandoned mines.

A new study by a West Virginia-based research firm shows the importance of the abandoned mine land reclamation funding that helps clean up areas where surface and underground mining has occurred over the last four decades.

Abandoned mine fund distributions, as calculated by Downstream Strategies in a recent study urging the need for federal funds in Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia.

Members of the research firm, Downstream Strategies, joined with Appalachian groups like Rural Action in Ohio in a recent webinar to talk about the need for the infrastructure bill to be passed, and the funds included for the Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act to be sent where they are needed.

“We know how to fix these problems, but the funding just isn’t there,” said Marissa Lautzenheiser, of Rural Action.

Efforts to address abandoned mine lands started in 1977 as part of the Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act, federal legislation that has to be reauthorized every 15 years. The latest version expired on Sept. 30 of this year, leaving advocates hoping for quick agreement on the infrastructure bill.

“We have some hope that passage will happen by (October) 31st, but it’s definitely not a sure thing at this point, unfortunately,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian senior program manager for the grassroots environmental advocacy groups Appalachian Voices.

In the newest infrastructure bill, the fees that go toward abandoned mine clean up would be reauthorized, and an additional $11.3 billion would be added to help continue clean-up and jobs related to the efforts.

Since the program began in the late ’70s, more than 978,000 acres of abandoned mine lands have been reclaimed, representing about $7.9 billion dollars in damages, according to Savage. Independent estimates show that there are still more than $20 billion in damages abandoned mine sites left to clean up.

In Ohio, more than a million acres of land have either been surface-mined or underground-mined, and Lautzenheiser said more than 1,300 miles of streams in the state have been polluted with acid mine drainage.

“Problems like acid mine drainage are going to be here forever,” Lautzenheiser said. “We need to focus on treatment rather than prevention.”

Despite a lack of appropriate federal funding to address the problem, Rural Action has partnered with state agencies and nonprofit groups to do some of the clean-up work on a local level.

“We’ve tracked the return of fish and other aquatic species to our rivers, kids are now fishing where their grandparents never before saw any signs of life,” Lautzenheiser said.

But the advances that have been made in the state’s environmental infrastructure are “precariously dependent” on more funding from the federal level.

A graph of abandoned mine lands, along with areas of unemployment shown in a study done by Downstream Strategies.

The study done by Downstream Strategies said mine lands in Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia make up about a quarter of all unfunded abandoned mine liabilities, areas where mines have gone into disrepair and are in need of clean-up. These areas also happen to be in areas of high poverty and high unemployment, according to Joey James, of Downstream Strategies.

Reauthorizing the funding would not only help the environment return to normal, but also help keep jobs related to the clean-up and conservation efforts. The study by Downstream Strategies showed the infrastructure funding would impact 730 jobs in Ohio in sectors like water treatment.

Joe Pizarchik, a former director for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said he believes the support for a standalone bill would be there if needed, but he’s hoping for the infrastructure bill to keep the funding and get passed quickly.

“I do not know of a single senator or representative who supports polluted water,” Pizarchik said.

An incentive for legislators to support abandoned mine reclamation and clean should also be the increased revenue in sectors such as fishing and outdoor recreation, along with better business in cleaner areas.

“When you come down to infrastructure, clean streams, clean water is the ultimate infrastructure,” Pizarchik said. “This country spends billions on levies and flood controls and barges and shipping, but we as a country have not put the money into cleaning up the water to treat the acid mine drainage.”



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.