In one of the least surprising announcements of the year, an environmental nonprofit group says Appalachia has a multibillion-dollar problem with coal mine reclamation.
As reported by HD Media’s Mike Tony, Appalachian Voices says the region needs from $7.5 billion to $9.8 billion to reclaim about 633,000 acres of coal mines that have been shut down since 1977.
That’s twice as much as $3.8 billion in reclamation bonds available in the seven states requiring reclamation, the group said in a report issued Wednesday.
Not unexpectedly, West Virginia has more acreage under active permits that are either unreclaimed or partially reclaimed than any of the six other states in the region, according to the report.
“I’ll be honest, I have not seen the state agencies take this issue as seriously as I hoped they would,” said Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices senior program manager and author of the report. “This is something that we’ve been talking to at least some of them about for several years now.”
As Tony noted, the report estimates that between 31% and 49% of West Virginia’s total reclamation liability is covered by bonds, projecting that the state’s total liability could soar as high as $3.56 billion.
But Savage’s study defers to a state legislative audit report released last month that says reclamation bonds cover only 10% of reclamation costs in West Virginia.
Savage’s report notes that West Virginia’s bonding system is already at risk of failure with more large-scale mine abandonment to come.
The Legislature adopted a resolution last week urging the federal government to allocate $8 billion to the state to reclaim forfeited mine sites and support struggling coal communities. The resolution had been advanced to the Senate and House of Delegates by a joint legislative committee lawmakers formed earlier this month to go after federal stimulus money for mine reclamation.
“That resolution does not really suggest how [West Virginia] is going to ... hold companies responsible or if they would do anything to try to improve their bonding system,” Savage said.
Whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, the West Virginia Legislature has a long history of ignoring long-term problems related to the coal industry. Individual legislators usually have short careers, and they tend to focus on the more immediate hot-button issues, such as transgendered athletes.
There’s always the philosophical question of whether the federal government should rescue states that mismanage their finances. But as long as President Joe Biden is wrapping everything under the sun in his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan, he might as well throw Appalachia some crumbs to at least start the process of reclaiming old mine land.
Regardless of what federal officials can or will offer, it’s time for legislative leadership to take a deep look at long-term problems facing the state. Education funding, infrastructure and abandoned mine land are among those. Short-term gimmicks such as eliminating the state personal income tax won’t do the job. It may be a lot to ask of the Legislature in the first election year after redistricting, but it has to be done.