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Cleaning Up Coal Mines Could Create More Jobs, Updated Report Finds



By Camille Erickson

November 1, 2020 - Cleaning up land disturbed by surface coal mining across the West could create thousands of jobs for former miners in the near term, especially as coal-dependent communities face an economic downturn and an uncertain future, a report updated last week concluded.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils, a group representing several grassroots organizations across the region, found that the cleanup, or reclamation, of coal mine sites in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota could generate approximately 6,000 and 12,000 full-time equivalent jobs, including 5,100 job-years in Wyoming alone, over a two- to three-year time frame.

The updated report urged state leaders to prepare for the coal industry’s structural decline by encouraging contemporaneous reclamation at active coal sites and holding companies accountable for funding the swift remediation of land when mines do shutter.

In recent years, a string of coal-fired power plant closures has swept through the country, depressing the demand for Powder River Basin coal. Natural gas has challenged coal in the electricity market with its attractive, rock-bottom prices. Commercially viable renewables have rapidly entered the market and placed greater pressure on coal too.

These market shifts have left many coal companies financially vulnerable and at risk of foundering on reclamation liabilities. States must ensure miners have opportunities for transitioning after layoffs occur at coal mines, the report recommended, and regulators must also ensure the state isn’t left responsible for covering the costs of cleanup.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has maintained that the state is on track to complete the reclamation of all inactive mine sites. It has bonds backing cleanup at all surface operations and single underground operation located in the mineral-rich state.

To protect taxpayers, Wyoming regulators revised bonding rules last year, too. Signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon in May 2019, the bonding rules bar companies from solely relying on self-bonding. Self-bonding is a type of bond not backed by money or assets. The new rules also set new credit standards for companies electing to partially self-bond, among other amendments.

It’s not just Wyoming that has cleanup work to do.

According to additional research by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, over one-third of all land disturbed by strip mining since 1977 has yet to be reclaimed throughout the West.

Last year, the Kayenta coal mine on Navajo and Hopi lands shut down, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.

The mine is owned by Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the country. It also operates mines in Wyoming.

In a statement, Peabody Energy emphasized it was still committed to completing reclamation at the mine site.

“We are engaged in monitoring and compliance work at the Kayenta Mine as we work towards final reclamation, which we expect to be a multi-year process,” Julie Gates, vice president of investor relations and communications at Peabody Energy, said in a statement. “We are committed to reclaiming the land as a vital part of the mining life cycle while we adjust to evolving conditions and unexpected delays related to COVID-19.”

The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement did not immediately respond to the Star-Tribune’s request for comment.

But to some local activists, the company has not done enough in terms of cleaning up the site in the past year. Peabody should focus on putting miners back to work and remediating the land impacted by years of mining, according to Nicole Horseherder, director of the Navajo community advocacy organization Tó Nizhóni? Ání.

“This report (by WORC) shows up to 200 of (the laid off coal workers) could be back working full time on efforts to reclaim that land over the next few years,” Horseherder said. “But they’re not because Peabody Energy is trying to push off its reclamation obligations for two to four more years. Navajo and Hopi workers who have been out of jobs for more than a year could be working to restore our lands and waters, but since the mine closed last August, Peabody is just leaving big open pits sitting on our land, and people are still out of jobs at a time when we need it most.”