Coal mining communities in Ohio and across the country helped spur the development of our economy for decades. However, these communities have received little support from the government as the coal industry has declined. Jobs have been lost, tax revenues have diminished, and mines have been abandoned and left to pollute our water and lands. These communities deserve better.
In Ohio, the coal industry has left behind more than 1 million acres of abandoned mine land and more than 1,300 miles of polluted streams. In these coal mining communities, there remain dangerous open mine portals, highwalls, and streams that run orange with pollution. These dangers are an eyesore and also impede economic growth, as few developers want to build on toxic land.
Fortunately, investing in cleaning and restoring these abandoned mine lands can make them usable again. Further, once they are restored, they can be transformed into job-creating economic hubs. Abandoned coal mines across the country have been transformed into manufacturing facilities, farms, recreation and tourism sites, and clean energy hubs that can help put displaced workers back to work.
The federal government’s Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund currently supports such redevelopment efforts, from Appalachia to the Powder River Basin, through a small fee paid by coal companies for every ton of coal mined. However, Congress is poised to let that funding expire and vanish at the end of 2021.
Coal mining communities facing continued economic turmoil cannot afford for this much-needed funding to be cut. Currently, there are proposals in Congress to overcome this, such as Senator Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Representative Matt Cartwright’s (Pennsylvania) bills to reauthorize AML funding. The companion RECLAIM (Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More) Act would allow communities to help determine how $1 billion in new investments in abandoned mine reclamation projects is spent. Taken together, these specific bills have been projected to create 13,000 jobs in affected communities.
Moreover, a recent study by Resources for the Future and other scholars investigated the paths forward for an equitable energy transition, which included policy suggestions for abandoned mines. A low estimate of $10.5 billion would need to be invested over the next decade, both through the aforementioned efforts of Manchin and Cartwright, but also through the Marshall Plan for Coal Country Act introduced by Senator Tammy Duckworth (Illinois). Appalachian states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the most affected by these thousands of abandoned mines and severely underfunded cleanups. Investing via federal policy would improve water quality, reduce public health risks, and support new job opportunities for those in need.
Despite the positives of the reauthorization of the AML fund, another new bill, sponsored by Representative Liz Cheney (Wyoming), cuts the amount of money collected for this fund, as well as the amount of time over which it is collected. Cheney’s bill essentially works to undercut the AML fund, by generating only about 2% of the dollars needed to fully reclaim all abandoned mine lands across the U.S. Some of Ohio’s members of Congress are backing this specific bill, which is confounding given that these issues clearly affect many communities across Appalachian Ohio.
While the AML fund alone is not enough to solve these complex issues, it remains an important approach that needs more support, not less. While other potentially relevant bills continue to emerge in Congress, such as the American Jobs Plan, the currently proposed AML fund legislation would be a clear step forward in helping coal-impacted communities that need support. Ohio’s members of Congress can start by supporting full reauthorization of the AML fund and the RECLAIM Act.
Gilbert Michaud, Ph.D, is a professor at Ohio University