November 1, 2022 - Virginia received $22.8 million of federal money for abandoned mine land reclamation projects last week, which advocates and officials say will resolve environmental hazards and create well-paying jobs along the way.
The cash is just a sliver of the $11.3 billion set aside for mine land restoration by lawmakers in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, which itself contained about a trillion dollars in allocations. The funding is set to be spent nationwide over 15 years.
It will supplement the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, administered by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The AML program is funded through a fee placed on every ton of coal extracted by mining companies.
The funding has gone to some notable projects in Central Virginia, like the Mid-Lothian Mines. Chesterfield County officials wanted to preserve the mine, which was one of the first in the nation, so they used AML cash to close high-risk vertical shafts, stabilize historic buildings and seal off pits.
A map of abandoned mine locations in Virginia (Graphic: Courtesy Virginia Department of Energy)
Virginia has about 3,000 abandoned mine sites, according to Tarah Kesterson of the Virginia Department of Energy. Those sites might have issues like waste coal piles that can leach into groundwater, unstable tunnels that threaten to collapse or slopes that cause harmful runoff and erosion.
“We rank them based on the severity,” Kesterson said. “The ones that pose the most danger to public safety, health and environmental degradation are the ones we focus on first.”
That ranking is important because, in a normal year, Virginia only receives enough money to cover a handful of projects.
Nationwide, the program has been pulling in less money as coal production drops. However, most of Virginia’s coal ends up being used to produce steel — and demand for steel is high — so the industry hasn’t seen the same decline as in other states with more energy-focused coal production. Kesterson said the metallurgical coal industry is actually on the upswing.
Still, the state isn’t pulling in a lot of cash for AML projects. Kesterson said $3 million to $4 million is normal for most years, and there is an extensive project backlog.
Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said the influx of about $23 million is a boon for the state’s efforts.
“The bipartisan infrastructure law means like 10 times as much funding for abandoned mine land cleanup as we’ve seen in recent years,” Barnes said.
Kesterson said the energy department received so much cash, it’s reaching out to some coal companies to become abandoned mine land contractors.
“We’ve never had this large amount of money,” Kesterson said. “We’re really going to be able to look at projects we haven’t had in our scope before because of that.”
Dan Taylor is with the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization that works with labor unions and environmental groups. He said the federal cash comes with the promise of jobs in a region that has lost hundreds as the coal industry declined.
“Cleaning up abandoned mines sites is a great example of how environmental challenges can also be economic opportunities,” Taylor said.
The projects create short-term construction jobs, which Taylor said are bolstered in the 2021 infrastructure law by prevailing wage standards — meaning the government will study local construction wages and offer payment in line with local norms.
Cleaning up environmental hazards also makes land accessible for more public and private uses, which Taylor and Barnes said can open a broad range of opportunities.
Project Reclaim in Russell County is one example of that. What started as a site containing 32 acres of coal waste, a preparation plant and 10 tunnel entrances is now a regional industrial site that county leaders are pitching for long-term development.
Reclaim was funded with grants from the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program — a separate funding source that focuses on projects with the potential to boost areas with new jobs and infrastructure, as well as improve the environment. Kesterson said that although that’s a different funding pot, the federal funds out of the infrastructure bill will likely be used in connection with some of those AMLER projects.
Most of the need is concentrated in Southwest Virginia, where the coal industry boomed for much of the 20th century.
Since 2017, Kesterson said AMLER has created about 239 jobs in Virginia, 60 of which are permanent. She said the AML program created about 990 jobs during that time.
She said she expects the infrastructure bill funding will be assigned to specific projects beginning in early 2023.