By Brad McElhinny
July 18, 2021 - Billions of funding for abandoned mineland cleanup could stimulate the economy across Appalachia while also producing jobs that would be a natural fit for coal miners, according to a new report.
Last week, the U.S. Senate Energy Committee passed out a broad-ranging bill with $95 billion for energy technologies and infrastructure. To go into effect, the bill would still need to be passed by the full Congress. It is part of a broader, bipartisan infrastructure proposal that has started moving in the Senate.
“The power West Virginia provides has been the backbone of the American economy for decades, and this significant investment will create new jobs and demonstrate the energy technologies needed to reducing emissions while maintaining our nation’s position as a global energy leader,” stated Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee.
Among many provisions, the bill includes $11.2 billion in new funding to clean up abandoned mine lands and the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund. Annual distributions to West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia for cleanup would increase by about 8 to 10 times.
States would have 15 years — until 2036 — to spend the money.
Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies assessed the economic impact in Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. The research concludes the legislation’s investments in abandoned mine reclamation and clean-up will generate nearly $7 billion in new economic activity and 2,700 jobs in the three Appalachian states.
“It would provide crucial economic stimulus for communities hard hit by the decline of coal,” said Joey James, principal and researcher from Downstream Strategies.
He said the research shows “that not only would it go a long way toward addressing some of the legacy mining issues facing our communities, but it would provide crucial economic stimulus to communities hit hard by the decline of coal.”
In West Virginia, 1,730 jobs would be created and $4.3 billion in economic output generated over 15 years, the research concluded. Ohio would add 680 jobs and $1.8 billion, while Virginia would add 300 jobs and $790 million.
“It is a huge opportunity, a big infusion of resources. Here is a way we can make up for the job loss and displacement of our coal workers,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
But she said big questions remain to assure the most benefit comes from the massive spending investment.
“How do we prioritize hiring local workers so that money stays in our communities? How do we look at prioritizing our coal miners for this work, who bring a skill set that can be transferrable to this kind of work?”
James, Rosser and others participated in a livestreamed briefing with reporters last week about the likely effects of passing increased federal abandoned minelands funding.
They emphasized that state agencies should start preparing as soon as possible to take on the task.
“This is a jump for them,” she said. “To make sure our state agencies have the support they need to administer the program is going to be critical.”
Earlier this year, the United Mineworkers union released a “Preserving Coal Country” report that laid out recommendations for continuing people’s livelihood in an era of energy transition.
Under a section titled “Create New Jobs,” the UMW report recommended full funding of anticipated Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation needs, requiring states to aggregate contracts for Abandoned Mine Land reclamation and requiring prevailing wages.
The Abandoned Mine Land fund was established by Congress in 1977. Since then, the Abandoned Mine Lands program has eliminated more than 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed over 1,000 miles of dangerous highwalls and restored water supplies to residents of coalfield communities. It also has protected people from hazards like landslides and flooding that result from leaving damaged lands unaddressed.
Funding for the AML program is set to expire this year, and new estimates indicate more than $20 billion in investment is needed to reclaim and restore remaining abandoned mines throughout the country. The newly-introduced legislation reauthorizes funding for the AML program for 15 years by extending a fee on coal severance.
“I see it as a strong down payment to help us get caught up,” Rosser said.