In the past 40 years, only about a quarter of the damage has been cleaned up, he said. Abandoned coal mines are concentrated along the Appalachian Mountains, with clusters also dotting the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. The sites can clog rivers with debris or pollute streams with harmful discharges caused by minerals exposed from mining, reducing fish populations and turning water brick red. Safety is another issue since people can topple into mineshafts and debris can fall from the mine’s high walls.
Tucked into the Senate-passed infrastructure bill is $11.3 billion for the cleanup of defunct coal mines to be distributed over 15 years — money experts say would go a long way toward rehabilitating the sites that date back to before 1977. Cleanup efforts are currently funded by fees from coal mining companies, but that money has fallen far short of what’s needed to fix the problems. “The next 15 years — if this passes — is literally a historic advancement in mine reclamation,” said Eric Dixon, a research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute. Fees from companies to clean up the sites are collected under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977, which sought to remedy the history of unregulated coal production that left abandoned mines around the country. Companies are now regulated so that sites are cleaned up once mining stops.
Among the states that need significant funding for mine cleanups are Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, according to the Interior Department. Pennsylvania — which needs the most funding in the country — has 5,500 miles of streams with impaired water quality due to runoff from abandoned mines, according to state officials.
The problem has persisted for so long that some Pennsylvania residents are surprised when red streams in their backyard are finally cleaned up and change color, said John Stefanko of the Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations in Pennsylvania. “These are streams that you wouldn’t want to walk through,” he said, noting that the sediment from the mine runoff can come off on people. Another worry is property damage. In 2019, for example, a collapsed tunnel entrance blocked water from escaping an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. State officials worried a rupture and deluge could threaten the houses downstream. Workers were able to fix the blocked tunnel.
The federal program that funds cleanups categorizes sites by priority, and those that pose a safety hazard to humans are bumped to the top of the list. Priority rankings can also rise if drinking water is affected. A site may be a lower priority if it only poses an environmental threat. The infrastructure bill directs cleanup funds toward several priority groups. Elizabeth Klein, senior counselor to the Interior Secretary, said clean water is essential for the economic growth that many Appalachian communities are pursuing.
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