Fighting for Justice in the Coalfields

Abandoned Mine Land Policy

PAPER: Abandoned Mine Land Program:
A Policy Analysis for Central Appalachia and the Nation

Reclaimed Kempton AML site in West Virginia. Photo credit: WV DEP

July 8, 2015 – Eric Dixon and Kendall Bilbrey

Download: Executive Summary Full Paper

Over $9 billion worth of abandoned coal mines remain across the United States. These abandoned mines pollute the places where citizens of coalfield communities live and work, and they pose serious impediments to local economic development, especially in poor, rural areas such as Central Appalachia. In 1977, Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program to reclaim abandoned coal mines.  Based in part on previously unreleased funding data and data from a new survey of AML officials, this paper provides an unprecedented analysis of the policy, economic, financial, and environmental repercussions of the AML program over its history. The paper also provides a set of policy recommendations that, according to our research findings, are necessary for the AML program to achieve its core purpose of reclaiming America’s abandoned coal mines.

The paper is the culmination of a year-long participatory research process in collaboration with The Alliance for Appalachia and the AML Policy Priorities Group. The research process was guided by a range of stakeholders, including affected citizens, community members, policy experts, organizers, government officials, and others.

Main takeaways:

  • While great strides have been made in reclaiming America’s abandoned coal mines, it will take at least $9.6 billion to remediate the remaining 6.2 million acres of lands and waters ravaged by AML problems. Many abandoned mines will remain after the current 2021 sunset of the AML program.
  • Despite the massive scope of the nation’s remaining AML problem, funding for AML reclamation is decreasing. In addition, AML funding is distributed according to current coal production rather than AML reclamation need, posing serious problems for areas such as Central Appalachia where many abandoned mines remain but coal production has fallen sharply.
  • The POWER+ Plan, proposed in the White House’s FY2016 budget, would disburse $1 billion of existing money from the AML Fund, creating an estimated 3,117 jobs in coalfield communities across the country and contributing a total of nearly $500 million to the US economy annually. Approximately 35% of these impacts would accrue in Central Appalachian states in FY2016.
  • In addition to the immediate economic boost of the POWER+ Plan, funding would be targeted toward AML projects that create long-term economic opportunities and local jobs. Projects like these have already been leveraged to create thousands of jobs in agriculture, recreation, tourism, renewable energy, retail, and more on AML sites in pockets across the country and world.

Other findings:

  • The AML program has reclaimed over $5.7 billion worth of AML problems—and nearly 800,000 acres of damaged land and water across the country.
  • The program delivered a total impact of $778 million to the US economy in FY2013, and supported 4,761 jobs across the country, 1,317 of which were in Central Appalachian states.
  • A Just Transition framework is crucial for moving ahead with mine reclamation in coalfield communities.
  • In order to enable the program to effectively reclaim America’s abandoned mines in light of modern problems, Congress should reauthorize the program and adopt a number of legislative fixes, including:
    • Initiate a wholesale update of the federal inventory of AMLs so that complete, reliable data is available on the remaining size and geographical distribution of all coal AMLs—not just high priority AMLs.
    • Ensure the long-term financial health of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) pension and benefit plans currently supported through the AML program.
    • Reinstate the historic AML fee levels, which would increase the AML program’s annual economic output by an estimated $116 million and create nearly 750 jobs across the country.
    • Update the POWER+ Plan so that AML distributions under the plan are distributed to states and tribes with the greatest economic distress.

A video with the authors of the paper by The Appalshop’s Making Connections News.

Press resources

  • The Charleston Gazette piece
  • Lexington Herald-Leader article
  • West Virginia State Journal article
  • Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog post
  • Huntington News report

Explore the data

Analyses in this paper are based in part on data provided to the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). This data is the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) claim made in November 2014 and is available to the public:

AML Fee Collections – AML Unappropriated Balance – Annual Allocations and Appropriations – UMWA Annual Transfers & Annual Interest Earned

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