Reclamation Money Could Fuel Recovery

While thousands of Appalachian coal miners go unemployed, the federal government is sitting on $2.5 billion that could put them to work. Their jobs could be reclaiming abandoned mine lands and preparing the way for a new regional economy.

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Shawn Poynter

An excavator works at a surface mine near Salyersville, Kentucky, that is owned by Licking River Resources Inc. A tax on coal supports the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which is supposed to help restore areas damaged during mining.  

In the poorest part of the poorest region in America, there is nearly $2.5 billion of federal money waiting to be spent. The money, which flows into the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust, comes from taxes that coal companies pay to reclaim old and abandoned strip mines. “Reclaim,” in this context, means to refurbish and reforest the land, getting it as close as possible to its natural state before the land was mined. Additionally, the money is meant to “reclaim” the economy, paving the way for the region to move away from coal.

No one denies what that money could represent to central Appalachia, where in just the last 18 months over 5,500 high paying mining jobs have been lost in Eastern Kentucky alone. The problem is no one can agree on how to spend it. The longer it goes unclaimed, the less likely it is to help the region.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, created a permanent trust to address environmental hazards caused by mining. This Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund was to be supported by a tax on every ton of coal mined in the United States.  Companies pay 35 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 10 cents per ton for deep-mined coal.  The fund is supposed to pay to fix old problems in cases where coal companies abandoned the land without reclaiming it.

Jack Spadaro was among the first to be hired by the federal Office of Surface Mining, which was created to oversee the new federal surface mining law, known as SMCRA. Before he was forced out of the Mine Safety and Health Administration after exposing a cover-up of the investigation of the 2000 Martin County coal slurry spill, he spent 18 years designing and engineering AML projects throughout central Appalachia. “Initially, we were spending a lot of money and creating a lot of jobs in the coalfields, and [the AML program] was a very effective program,” Spadaro said.

Over time, however, the program became more and more limited.  According to many, it has become prohibitively difficult for the average person to gain access to the funds.  “It’s almost impossible for anyone in Eastern Kentucky to get their hands on that money,” said Greg Stumbo, Kentucky Speaker of the House.  “Congress has kept that money bottled up for 30 years.  It’s the hardest money to access….If I knew the answer to [why], I’d probably be the smartest man in America.”

Stumbo points out the jobs theoretically created by reclamation are jobs that miners are uniquely qualified to do.  “Most miners can do darn near anything,” he says.  “They have to run equipment.  They have a great skill-set.”

Spadaro suggests that the fund is dormant and is being used to prop up the federal deficit. “It’s a shame because the original intent of the AML fund was to do reclamation work and to improve conditions in the coalfields, not just for streams and forests but for communities as well. And instead of being used to do that, Congress has set it aside as a hedge against the deficit. And no one, it seems to me, has had the courage to point this out, even though there are many politicians who know what’s going on.”

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