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Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Aiding Virginia Energy's Abandoned Mine Cleanup



July 2, 2024 - Southwest Virginia’s bucolic scenery is easy to see: steep slopes blanketed with trees; rolling farmland with grazing cattle; closely-clustered single-story homes and places of worship nestled at the feet of continuous mountain ranges.

What can be easy to overlook and hard to find, tucked away in the hollers of the 13 counties of the state’s coalfield region, are landslide issues that harm waterways and threaten residents. 

“Cities are important. A lot of people live there, but there are a lot of people in southwestern Virginia,” said Sharon Buccino, principal deputy director of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “We’ve left too many other people behind,” something Buccino thinks her office is changing, especially when it comes to rural communities.

Record amounts of funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enabled OSMRE to find and diversify opportunities stemming from abandoned mine lands. 

Called AMLs for short, abandoned mine lands are patches of earth dug up by previously existing mining operations that weren’t restored when the businesses left prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which stopped that practice from continuing.

Virginia Energy, the state’s agency tasked with finding and cleaning up  the AMLs, was supercharged in 2023 with about $23 million in funding over the next 15 years. Before that, the state had received about $3 million to $4 million annually for the efforts since 1981. 

“We think by the end of that 15-year period we will have knocked out about 70% of our (AMLs) inventory,” said Tarah Kesterson, spokeswoman for the agency. “That’s huge for us.” 


The regulations governing how mining companies dig into the earth for their product and treat the land after they are done come from the Surface Mining Control And Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, often pronounced phonetically  smack-ra.

SMCRA requires  mining systems to return the land to what is called the Approximate Original Contour — so that it’s similar to the surface shape prior to mining — and supports the drainage patterns. 

Another, financial-based requirement places a tax on active coal mining that flows into the AML program and is then distributed to all the states in the U.S. that produce coal. 




 A screenshot of the inventory of abandoned mine land projects in Southwest Virginia. (Courtesy of Virginia Energy)



 “There’s always been somewhat of a tension between the western states and the eastern states about the distribution of that abandoned mine land money because the west more recently has had more coal production, so it gets taxed more money that gets generated for the program,” explained Brad Kreps, Clinch Valley Program director for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit working with the state on remediating mine land. 

“But the east is where a majority of the pre-mining laws exist because that’s where all the mining was through most of the 20th Century.”

In addition to needs for modern equipment that improves the productivity rate of mining, the stricter environmental and worker safety protections being put in place are said to have consolidated the industry. 

In 1990, Virginia produced over 46.5 million tons of coal. The transition to renewable energy sources contributed to a decline in the demand for coal to produce electricity. In 2023, just over 10 million tons of coal were produced in the commonwealth, through a combination of surface and underground mining. 

AML Program 

The state has an inventory of about 3,000 known abandoned mine lands within its borders. It takes careful searching, and receiving tips from community members who may stumble across a coal seam where coal is embedded in the earth, to find them. 

Once they’re located, the state ranks the work to reclaim them by prioritizing those that benefit the human health and safety of a community — like removing a remaining highwall, or rockwall, from surface mining operation — and then considers environmental issues.

One environmental concern that has been researched with abandoned mine lands is the pooling of water, which in one instance collected at a former mine, called Clintwood JOD, that operated from 1973 to 1976 in the town of Pound, also called “The LB.”  




 Stone, in the foreground, that will stabilize the bottom of the hill of the Camp Creek Landslide. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury) 


Over time water pooled and eventually pushed through a bench, a flattened area at the edge of a surface mine that creates a cliff. The water caused a landslide of trees and dirt into a stream feeding into the Pound River. 

The extra dirt there creates an increased flooding opportunity for that stream, and eventually the Pound River.

“Some water will run off of the coal seam,” said Virginia Energy Project Manager Jon Fleming. “It’ll all just kind of saturate. Everything gets real loose, like jello, and just drops. Our program goes in to correct all that.”  


 Ducks swim in a stream at the bottom of the Camp Creek Landslide (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury) 


In 2020, Virginia Energy began planning the work to collect the landslide dirt during the $4 million project, but needed approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency also had to complete a three-year review from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put in precautions for moving the endangered Big Sandy crayfish out of the worksite area downstream.

The $1.6 million from BIL funding now supports about 15 jobs wherein workers will dig out one side of the road, relocate a water line to the other side of the road and build a bridge over the stream, which can only be in place in the month of July to avoid impacts to the crayfish. 

An excavator will then move onto the other side to scoop up about 30,000 yards of dirt from the incline through the end of September.

“They’re going to dig, and then it will settle. It’ll dig and then settle,” said Virginia Energy AML Chief Engineer Holly White. “As we start getting more of this material out and finding more of the natural ground they will start to place that [buttress] material in there to keep new material from sliding [down].”

The incline will be stabilized by larger sandbags at the base of the hill during the project. The collected dirt will be dumped into trucks that will be relocated to another surface mine reclamation site down the road or onto a private property nearby, before the bridge is replaced next July. During that limited window, the excavator will be driven back over the stream and the roadway then returned.   


 Sand bags that will stabilize work to dig up the Camp Creek Landslide. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury) 

“They’ll have spotters the whole time,” White said. “It’s going to have to be very well coordinated.”

Other projects that recently received BIL funding include water quality improvement initiatives in Amonate in Tazewell County and Hurley in Buchanan County. A list of several other AML projects currently underway can be found on the Virginia Energy website.