Lawmakers, including two from Pennsylvania, are asking for a federal investigation into the full extent of environmental damage caused by what are known as “zombie” surface mines, which may technically still be considered active for coal extraction but have been idled for months or years and can leak toxic waste.
For environmental and public safety reasons, coal mining companies are supposed to stabilize and repair damaged land surfaces as they mine and not wait until all their digging or blasting is done.
But as the economy around coal mining has crashed over the last decade, giving way to wind, solar and natural gas, mining companies have gone through bankruptcies, and environmental advocates have noticed delays in the kind of reclamation that federal law requires.
Identical requests for an investigation—one from seven members of the House of Representatives and the other from Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)—were sent to the General Accountability Office on Thursday. The GAO is an an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.
The House letter was signed by Reps. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.); Don Beyer (D-Va.); Morgan McGarvey (D-Ky.);Jared Huffman(D-Ca.); Katie Porter (D-Ca.); Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Both requests cited a potential risk to taxpayers.
“Some coal companies are idling mines and stalling reclamation to cut costs,” the lawmakers wrote to the GAO. “Because mine operators typically rely on coal revenue to fund reclamation, the longer a mine remains idle, the greater the risk that the operator may not have sufficient funds to pay for reclamation.
“Further, there have been at least 68 coal company bankruptcies since 2012, which draws attention to whether financial assurances obtained by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and state agencies will be adequate to reclaim the land should the operators fail to do so. As a result, taxpayers may ultimately get stuck paying the bill.”
The GAO uses a standard process for deciding whether to launch an investigation, said Jessica Baxter, senior public affairs specialist with the agency. Among the factors are subject matter, workload, costs and benefits, according to the protocols.
The Democrats’ requests cover mining activities in the modern era, which began in 1977, when Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It established federal regulations for surface mining, required mine reclamation and set forth bonding requirements to make sure reclamation occurs if companies go bankrupt.
The 1977 law also established the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program and fund to address environmental damage from mines abandoned before 1977. The fund got a boost from Congress and President Biden in 2021 with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which allocated $11.3 billion over 15 years for abandoned surface or underground mine cleanups.
But the zombie mines are not covered by the Abandoned Mine Land Fund.
The nonprofit group Appalachian Voices researched those mines and published a report in 2021 that focused on a seven-state Appalachian region: Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The group identified some 633,000 acres in those states that need some degree of reclamation, with West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania needing the most.
Appalachian Voices estimated that the total cost of outstanding reclamation for all seven states at the time was $7.5 to $9.8 billion dollars, and that required bonding programs were likely to be woefully inadequate to meet those financial needs. The group found only $3.8 billion in bonding money was available in those states.
As mining companies have gone bankrupt in the past, bankruptcy courts often found other companies to take over mines. But that’s getting harder to do, as the demand for coal for generating electricity has waned, raising the risks to taxpayers, environmental advocates said.
“Companies shouldn’t be able to shirk their responsibility to remediate with impunity,” Fetterman said. “With this information from GAO, we would be able to have an educated conversation about ways to improve the mine reclamation process to hold the coal industry accountable and keep our promise to our communities.”
Cartwright, who represents the coal mining region around Scranton, Pennsylvania, said that “these shuttered mines are liabilities that pollute our lands and our water and hold back economic growth. This investigation is the first step in turning mine blight into economic growth for coal-impacted communities.”
State agencies have also struggled to keep pace with the changing coal economy.
Inside Climate News reported last year, based on an analysis of public records dating to 2013, that in Kentucky, financially struggling mining companies also were racking up a rising number of violations at surface mines, and that state regulators had failed to bring a record number of them into compliance.
In 2021, Inside Climate News reported that bankrupted coal mines left unreclaimed were among the potential long-term impacts of coal mining on the environment, with public concerns ranging from water pollution to falling rock.
“I think there is a problem with stalled reclamation, and underfunded mines and I feel pretty confident in that assessment,” said Erin Savage, author of the Appalachian Voices report, “Repairing the Damage: The costs of delaying reclamation at modern-era mines.”
“But there are state agencies and others who disagree with me and say everything is fine. We think there needs to be a neutral party that can confirm or deny the stand of reclamation and bonding issues,” Savage said.
The findings could lead Congress or the Department of the Interior to take steps to make sure unreclaimed mines get reclaimed, she said.
The lawmakers have asked GAO to quantify the number, location and size of coal mines that have neither produced coal or made reclamation progress, and whether bonding or other financial assurances are adequate to address the problem.
They have also asked the GAO to assess whether federal regulations are effective at making sure idle mines get reclaimed in a timely manner.
They said they need the GAO’s help because coal mining regulations and oversight are spread across multiple state and federal agencies.
“Given this dispersion of responsibility and variation in record keeping, it is
difficult to obtain a complete and accurate picture of the state of the coal mining industry as a whole,” they wrote.
“People living near mine sites have dealt with landslides, toxic water and harmful water runoff issues,” said Rebecca Shelton, director of policy for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “Citizen-led groups have been scrambling to research the scope of this crisis for years, but we need the resources of the federal government to investigate so that we understand the full extent of the problem and can craft the best solutions.”