Thousands of abandoned mine sites sit idle, waiting for cleanup across the country. For over four decades, the federal government has been gradually building a pot of money to devote to the reclamation, or cleanup, of these hazardous swaths of land disturbed by mineral extraction. Coal companies are charged a fee for every ton of coal they produced to support the program.
Wyoming receives more funding for its abandoned mine land reclamation program than any other state. But the federal government’s authority to collect the fees that fund the program is on track to expire next year.
In response to the impending deadline, Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi introduced legislation Wednesday to both amend and extend the collection of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation fee. The bill would allow the government to collect fees for seven more years, through 2028.
Barrasso and Enzi’s bill would also commit $2.2 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land fund specifically toward “accelerated grants” for remediation of the most environmentally hazardous spots. What’s more, the rate of the fee would drop by 35% in an effort to provide relief to coal companies struggling with the downturn in coal markets.
The fee charged per ton of coal produced has gradually decreased since 1977, with the rate for surface mining declining from 35 cents to its current rate of 28 cents per ton. Since instituting the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the federal government has collected $11.2 billion in fees for the fund (as of September 2018).
“Lowering the fee level will give coal producers the relief they need to stay in business, and continue to create revenue for abandoned mine cleanup,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Nearly 15 years has passed since Congress last updated the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program. Extending the program and releasing already collected AML fees will go a long way in tackling the cleanup of these coal mines.”
Half of the money collected by the program flows back to certified programs around the country to support local oversight and rollout of the massive cleanup projects. This year, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt made $170.9 million in grants available to states and tribes for mine reclamation. According to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, cleaning up all the 6,079 abandoned mining sites across the U.S. would require at least $12.5 billion.
Wyoming takes the lead in cleanup
Wyoming receives its portion of the fund through the U.S. Treasury when it applies for the annual Abandoned Mine Land grants. In fiscal year 2020, Wyoming will benefit from $35.8 million in grants. The state produces more coal than anywhere else in the nation.
“The Abandoned Mine Land program has provided crucial funding for coal-producing states like Wyoming over the years,” Enzi said. “Reauthorizing the AML fee would ensure that our country can continue the important reclamation of these environmentally hazardous mine sites while making timely improvements to the program.”
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is one of the 25 agencies certified to oversee the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. The department has accomplished reclamation projects on coal mine sites but also hazardous land disturbed from uranium and hard rock mining.
Before the adoption of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the federal government did not require coal companies to perform remediation work at mined sites. States like Wyoming continue to lead the charge in cleaning up these abandoned sites.
The two largest reclamation projects currently underway in Wyoming include two former uranium mine sites. The Day Loma complex is located in the Gas Hills about 40 miles outside of Riverton. The state has already completed 10 phases of reclamation. The state is now undertaking the 11th phase, but the task of cleaning up the entire complex will require about five more phases, the department estimates.
Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director, Alan Edwards administers the state’s Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Program. He said each reclamation project spurs substantial economic activity in surrounding communities. For instance, the Day Loma project last year alone required 248,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
“The (Day Loma and McIntosh Pit uranium sites) are really good projects that amount to an awful amount of work and they employ an awful lot of people,” Edwards said.
Over time, Wyoming’s abandoned mine land program developed a new approach to reclamation called geomorphic reclamation. Geomorphic reclamation reconstructs the heterogeneous features of surrounding land to mirror the diverse conditions found before uranium and coal mining commenced.
“Geomorphic reclamation is designed to mimic the surrounding area,” Edwards explained. It helps prevent erosion, maintain native plants and make the land cohesively blend into the surrounding land.
The department has been able to reclaim most coal mine sites in the state that were active before 1977. But, Edwards added, “we still have a lot of reclamation left to do, there’s no doubt about that.”
When it comes to the future of the abandoned mine land reclamation fee, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, opposed the proposed reduction in the fee rate.
“As the coal industry further declines, it is more important than ever to have the fund as a safety net for reclaiming and preventing public health and safety hazards from abandoned mines,” Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney for the group, told the Star-Tribune.
In contrast, the National Mining Association president and CEO, Rich Nolan, criticized what he considered an improper use of funds under the current program and praised the amendments proposed by the Wyoming lawmakers.
“This legislation will help to refocus the program on priority reclamation projects and examine the oversight required to ensure funds are not squandered on overhead and administrative costs,” Nolan said.
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