Coal Tattoo

One way to create green jobs in the coalfields

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Derek Springston, a volunteer with Friends of Deckers Creek, helps to monitor water quality near an old mine at Richard. Iron from the mine drainage colors the water and bank orange. When it settles in the streambed, it smothers habitat for aquatic insects, which would provide food for fish.  Courtesy photo.

Your Sunday Gazette-Mail’s Perspectives page featured a commentary by Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies and Sarah Veselka of Friends of Deckers Creek about their efforts to convince state officials to spend some Abandoned Mine Lands program money to finish the cleanup of Deckers Creek in Morgantown.

I’ve been a little skeptical of such projects being moved to the top of the stack of AML projects in the  Appalachian coalfields. Why? Sure, it sounds like a win-win that would clean up an environmental problems and help spur tourism as part of a more diverse economy for that part of West Virginia.

But when I wrote Abandoned Promises, a series on the AML program  five years ago, among the things I learned and reported about was the effort by some states — primarily Pennsylvania at the time — to divert huge amounts of federal mine cleanup money to projects like this, which are lower down on the priority list set by Congress.

(And I have to say, I wonder about the notion of environmentalists urging Gov. Joe Manchin to direct the WVDEP to do anything –  aren’t they the ones always complaining about how governors politicize the agency, to the benefit of the coal industry?)

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This U.S. Office of Surface Mining map shows the concentration of abandoned coal mines in the heart of Appalachia.

The AML program has had many successes, but it’s fallen far short of its ultimate goals — in large part because hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted to lower priority projects or to projects that had nothing at all to do with cleaning up coal’s past messes.

Regarding stream cleanups specifically, some federal government officials and many environmental groups have pushed to move projects that are strictly environmental cleanups — projects that don’t have a public safety aspect to them — up on the AML priority list. Pennsylvania was the biggest advocate of this, having in 1999 added $3.6 billion of such projects to their AML inventory, a move that doubled the size of the entire nationwide mine cleanup database.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. and the congressional leader on AML issues, tried to put a stop to such nonsense, by eliminating language that allowed states to give priority to projects that protect “the general welfare” from coal-mining damage, along with health and safety threats.

The final legislation passed in 2006 to extend the  AML project for another 14 years compromised:

The bill eliminates a broad “general welfare” provision that many states had used to divert AML money to reclamation and water cleanups that did not threaten public health or property. But the bill also allows such lower-priority environmental projects to continue if they are adjacent to public health and property cleanups. 

And, as the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said in its final rules to implement the 2006 legislation, there are a variety of other programs and funding set-asides that ensure that cleanups like Deckers Creek can be addressed by the AML program.

Just a few months after the 2006 legislation passed, Gov. Manchin announced (in his 2007 State of the State address, no less) that he was going to make drinking water projects for coalfield communities a priority as WVDEP began to spend the increased AML money coming its way under the program extension and reform.

As Evan and Sarah point out in their Gazette-Mail commentary:

The money is available. This year, the federal Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund provided an unprecedented $40 million to the state for projects such as this, and it will provide $51 million next year.  According to the rules for disbursing these funds, the Richard mine qualifies as a Priority 3 site because it does not present a threat to human health and welfare through, for example, an open portal. However, the state can spend 30 percent of its allocations on sites with acid mine drainage problems like this.

Such projects have great potential in West Virginia and across the coalfields. And, they can be done without stripping money from projects that have stronger public health and safety implications — especially is the Obama administration decides to make clear this promise:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

One possible way to make good on that pledge? Boost spending from the AML fund on mining cleanups across the region’s coalfields.