Manchin Questions Administration’s Progress Reclaiming Abandoned Mine Lands
November 11, 2023 - The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the implementation of federal coal mine land reclamation and abandoned coal mine land economic revitalization programs. During the hearing, Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV), discussed the $11.3 billion included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to clean up Abandoned Mine Lands (AML), the unnecessarily long vetting process for Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program (AMLER) projects, and difficulties that states have in the application process to receive AML funding.
“For generations, coal communities across our nation have made the sacrifices and done the heaving lifting to turn our country into a global energy leader. Many of these communities still bear the scars of those sacrifices in the form of abandoned mine lands as a result of decades of unregulated surface mining that occurred prior to the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, known as SMCRA. Whether it’s acid mine drainage impacting rivers and streams; subsidence and landslides threatening homes, businesses, and infrastructure; or dangerous mine openings, AML sites pose serious risk to the health and safety of communities across the country, particularly in Appalachia. 5.5 million people in Appalachia live within 1 mile of an abandoned mine land site, including 1 in 3 West Virginians,” said Chairman Manchin.
Chairman Manchin also commented on the extension of the AML Reclamation fee collection authority and the $11.3 billion in funding for AML clean up that was included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“The AML fee is extremely important but, unfortunately, that alone will not be enough to address all of the unfunded AML issues across the country. That is why we included an additional $11.3 billion for AML clean up in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. West Virginia is on track to receive roughly $140 million per year for the next fifteen years to address AML problem areas through that funding. To put into perspective how much of a game changer this is for my state, West Virginia only received around $15 million from the traditional AML program for FY23. Our state’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocation for this year is more than 8 times that amount. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is finally providing the funding our state needs to make our communities safer in counties all across West Virginia,” said Chairman Manchin. “The AML provisions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are not just about protecting the safety of these communities, they are also an investment in our future. If implemented effectively, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s AML provisions could result in approximately $4.3 billion in economic output for the state of West Virginia and 1,910 jobs that will continue for 13 to 15 years, according to a report from Downstream Strategies.”
Chairman Manchin further discussed the long approval process for AMLER projects.
“A long approval process for AMLER is unfortunately not the only problem. The administration is seeking to force new, and sometimes retroactive, rules on AMLER projects, such as requiring projects to record a covenant that gives the federal government extensive control over the land being used for these projects. These rule changes ultimately slow down assistance to our coal communities and send the signal that federal government is working against them. This pattern throughout all of OSMRE’s programs is alarming. Unfortunately, suggestions by states to make AML programs run smoother often seem to fall on deaf ears. Let me give you one example. States like West Virginia must submit three separate applications just to receive their AML funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the traditional SMCRA AML program, and AMLER. These applications are not a small task and are filled with a lot of duplicative information that spans all three programs. State agencies have asked OSMRE to create a uniform process with less duplicative and burdensome paperwork, and yet no action has been taken to make this process more user-friendly,” said Chairman Manchin.
During the hearing, Chairman Manchin questioned Ms. Glenda H. Owens, Deputy Director, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Interior, about the long vetting process for AMLER program applications.
“Right now, we know it’s about 700 days to get an AMLER process going through authorization. Can you explain why the vetting process is taking so long?” asked Chairman Manchin.
“The vetting process is where we work with the states, and we try to provide them as much information upfront on whether the proposed projects that they are receiving are going to meet eligibility requirement, meet the federal requirements. As this program has evolved and developed what we found is the number and scope and complexity of the projects and some of the issues and concerns that are presented are increasing. So, we want to work with them earlier, we want to identify where they are,” said Ms. Owens.
“Did we, with our good intentions, make it worse for you?” continued Chairman Manchin.
“This started out as a pilot, and it was pretty straightforward, but as it has evolved, the scope has increased. This is a great program, it’s achieving reclamation in those impacted communities, it’s developing and providing economic opportunities. So, the proponents are getting more creative, they are proposing projects that hadn’t been proposed in the past. So, it requires us to do more detailed review and to work with the states earlier on. This is not just a linear process, this is an iterative process,” replied Ms. Owens.
Chairman Manchin questioned witnesses about Title 5 of SMCRA that requires coal mine operators to reclaim any disturbed land during and after a mine ceases operation and to submit financial assurance, such as bonds, to ensure that reclamation is completed should the operator not be able to do so. Current bonding practices may not provide sufficient funding to cover reclamation costs following mine closures.
“Are we keeping up with the amount of bonding, the requirement of bonding, do they [mine operators] have enough bonding to do it in case they leave and walk away, or forfeit their bonds?” asked Chairman Manchin.
“West Virginia, as you know, has a substantial abandoned mine land inventory. So, we’re well aware of what the impact of keeping track of current mining would have on the state should bonding not be sufficient. So the state has a special reclamation advisory council and that group gets together and they look at rate of forfeitures, the bonding, the tax on coal and every two years an actuary is prepared,” replied Mr. Rob Rice, Deputy Cabinet Secretary and Director, Division of Land Restoration, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
“Can you tell me, since SMCRA, how much we have been left with unfunded bonding or unfunded property where the bonds were inadequate, or bankruptcies that stuck the state with this mess?” continued Chairman Manchin.
“The state’s comfortable with where we’re at right now. The actuary that is in draft, the projection is actually great. It looks out twenty years, and so in 2043 the state is projected to be solvent with an estimated $180 million available to fund any reclamation that needs to happen. As part of that, in 2017 there was a thought that we may need to increase the amount of money that can take care of these. So, there was an increase on the per ton tax that helped fund the special reclamation program. So, there’s really two safety nets. You have the bond for the mine, but you also have the twenty-seven cents per ton that goes on top of that,” said Mr. Rice.
Chairman Manchin also organized a meeting between the witnesses for after the hearing to discuss how states and the federal government could work better together to vet project applications for AMLER programs.
“Mr. Rice, you’re here today. Have you had a meeting with OSMRE while you’re here? After this meeting, you all can sit down. We’ll find you a room here or if you want go to back to your office. This is how we have to get things fixed. What I need to know from you Ms. Owens is this: What do you believe the law has codified that you have to do, and what do you believe through rules and regulations has been interpreted that we can change these interpretations that aren’t codified or not really clear? We’ll back you up with some common sense that helps get the job done,” said Chairman Manchin.
The hearing featured witnesses from the U.S. Department of the Interior, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
To watch the hearing in full, please click here.