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Why cleaning up abandoned coal mines is so important — and difficult

November 28, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
With coal production at its lowest level in 30 years, abandoned mines around the country are causing major environmental problems. They can catch fire, and debris from them can contaminate the water supply. But mine cleanup is an effort difficult to fund, since many of the coal companies responsible for them are claiming bankruptcy. Inside Energy’s Leigh Paterson reports from western Pennsylvania.
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JOHN YANG: And now to coal and the challenges of cleaning up old mines.

With some coal companies in bankruptcy, the money needed to pay for cleanup isn’t always available.

Public media’s Inside Energy and The Allegheny Front teamed up to report from two of the country’s largest coal-producing states.

Leigh Paterson takes us first to western Pennsylvania.

LEIGH PATERSON: It is a nice day for a walk in the woods. But this is not a hiking trail.

ERIC CAVAZZA, Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection: This site is known as the Fredericktown refuse pile. Some people call it the Black Dog Hollow refuse pile as well.

LEIGH PATERSON: A coal refuse pile made up of rocks and low-quality coal.

ERIC CAVAZZA: And then the reject material was just trammed and then conveyor-ed up on the hill and dumped on this giant pile and left.

LEIGH PATERSON: That was over 70 years ago. The coal mine nearby changed hands as companies went bankrupt. Now the pile is a hazard. There are hundreds of sites like this one in Pennsylvania, and there are tens of thousands of abandoned mine sites scattered across the country.

ERIC CAVAZZA: They can catch on fire. This particular pile isn’t burning that we are aware of, but many of these do catch on fire.

LEIGH PATERSON: Like one in Eynon, Pennsylvania, that was put out in 2015. Cavazza once fell into a burning pile himself while investigating a fire years ago.

ERIC CAVAZZA: It was very scary. It was like walking onto a trap door and having somebody pull the string, because you just dropped. And I was in over my head in a hole. And there was smoke all around me.

LEIGH PATERSON: Not all problems with abandoned mine sites are straight out of an action movie, but they’re still significant.

When it rains, these coal refuse piles can discharge some nasty stuff. This so-called acid mine drainage can contaminate streams and sometimes even impact the local water supply. Homeowners, like the ones who live around this pile, deal with pipes and sewers that get clogged with runoff.

ERIC CAVAZZA: So it’s a big maintenance issue for the township.

LEIGH PATERSON: Cavazza, as the head of the bureau that deals directly with abandoned mine remediation, wants these piles cleaned up. But it’s expensive, and money to do the cleanup is tight. A lot of it comes from something called the Abandoned Mine Land fund, or AML.

ERIC CAVAZZA: The fund is generated by the active mining industry, and the country is beginning to move away from coal as a primary source of electricity generation.

LEIGH PATERSON: And with coal production at its lowest level in 30 years, there’s simply less money coming in. In Pennsylvania alone, AML funding has dropped by over 25 percent since 2013.

In Wyoming, the worry is about future cleanup costs. How thick is that seam right there?

BLAKE JONES, Technical Services Manager, Cloud Peak Energy: Thirty-five feet thick.

LEIGH PATERSON: These pits are huge, and are generally filled in as mining operations progress.

BLAKE JONES: The area that you see mining right now will look like this in approximately two years.

LEIGH PATERSON: This green, grassy area right next to the mine was a mine itself just a few years ago. It has since been filled in and reseeded as part of the complicated, lengthy cleanup process known as reclamation.

RICK CURTSINGER, Spokesperson, Cloud Peak Energy: For part of the leasing process, before any mining begins, mines are required to have a reclamation plan.

LEIGH PATERSON: And something called reclamation bonding.

RICK CURTSINGER: That’s a guarantee, an insurance that we will accomplish the reclamation that’s outlined as part of that lease.

LEIGH PATERSON: So, basically, a payment to make sure future mine cleanup gets done. Regulations in some states allow coal producers to self-bond, which means companies promise to pay for cleanup based on their financial strength.

The problem comes when those companies become financially shaky and those cleanup money gets tied up in bankruptcy court. In Wyoming, over the course of this year, we’re talking about over a billion dollars.

Pat Sweeney has been working on Western land issues for decades and even lobbied for the 1977 federal law that regulates coal mine cleanup.

He puts this problem into perspective.

PAT SWEENEY: Remember, the circumstances were so different then, too, because you had viable companies that, at the time, no one ever thought there might be companies going bankrupt. No one thought, in some respects, that there would be a change in energy policy.

LEIGH PATERSON: Cloud Peak Energy, the coal company that took us on the reclamation tour, is not one of the companies in bankruptcy, and is moving away from the practice of self-bonding.

But with some of the largest coal companies in the country working out reclamation details during and after bankruptcy, the future of cleanup is unclear.

LEIGH PATERSON: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Leigh Paterson.

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