Bill to Reauthorize Trust Fund That Turns Mine Wastes Into Viable Land
December 1, 2019 - A pool of cash collected to right the coal industry’s historic wrongs could start running dry in 2021 unless Congress reauthorizes the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund.
Pennsylvania Congressman Matt Cartwright, D-8, Moosic, is pushing his bill to extend the fund, which is fed by a fee that mining companies pay for every coal ton (28 cents for surface mining, 12 cents for underground mining) they produce, until 2036.
Cartwright has bipartisan support, and introduced the bill with co-sponsor Glenn Thompson, R-15, Centre County. Thompson told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that the 15th District has “more abandoned mine sites than all the other congressional districts in America combined, although we’re proud of the fact of what that coal is used for.”
In the Northeast, which has seen a dramatic surge over the last decade in new warehouse and business park construction, developers are sizing up forgotten chunks of real estate that often include former coal wasteland.
Advocates and conservationists who collaborate with industrial developers say trust fund money offers a powerful incentive for investors who want to build, but who balk at the added cost of site reclamation.
“It’s an important component going forward for economic redevelopment of abandoned mine lands,” said Bernard McGurl, director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association.
In Hanover Twp., the fund helped backfill land around the former Huber Breaker, then owned by the Earth Conservancy and later used to site massive warehouses for Chewy.com, Adidas and Patagonia.
The same funds helped in Carbondale to extinguish long-burning underground mine fires south of Russell Park. The money also is helping move tens of thousands of tons of culm piled high in Swoyersville.
“There’s potential for redevelopment,” said Robert Hughes, director at the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. He testified Nov. 14 before the Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee.
“It doesn’t have to be warehouses. It could be mixed use industrial development; it could be a housing complex, houses that get put back on the tax rolls,” he said.
In the last four months, crews have removed between 20,000 and 25,000 tons of coal waste from the Swoyersville project.
“I would certainly support and promote any type of incentive program that would help clean former industrial mined lands and put grayfields and brownfields back on the market,” said John Augustine, director at Penn’s Northeast, an agency that has played a hand in drawing most of the large warehouse and business park developers and tenants to the region.
Cartwright has widespread support from both sides of the aisle, with Republican co-sponsors primarily from coal-affected districts.
“At a time when people in this country must thing that partisanship has consumed us, here we have a bipartisan, common sense proposal that creates jobs, protects the environment and saves lives,” he said during the subcommittee hearing.
As coal gets replaced by alternative energy sources, McGurl and Hughes say lawmakers should start thinking a decade or two years down the road when the money starts to dwindle and mine-scarred land remains unreclaimed.
With that in mind, Hughes said lawmakers should also consider which projects get tackled first.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement estimates remedying the remaining high-priority abandoned mine sites nationwide will cost $10 billion.
“We want to talk about a little bit of a reprioritization on targeting sites for economic development,” he said. “In case 15 years down the road, there may not be another opportunity to do this.”