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Planning Ahead for Continued Restoration of Mine-Impacted Waters

A hearing held on June 7 in Washington, D.C. provided an important reminder that protecting and restoring water resources often requires a long-term perspective, one that, in this instance, counsels for immediate action to ensure resources will continue to be available to address widespread and long-lasting sources of water pollution.  

The hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources addressed the federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program, which includes an AML Fund from which grants are distributed annually to states and tribes for reclaiming old abandoned coal mines. One issue addressed during the hearing was reauthorizing collection of the reclamation fee on each ton of extracted coal that supplies revenue to the federal AML Fund. Collection of the reclamation fee currently is scheduled to expire in 2021. 

The witnesses at the hearing included R. John Dawes, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and a former member of PennFuture’s board of directors. Dawes was deeply involved in the negotiations resulting in the 2006 legislation that reauthorized collection of the reclamation fee through 2021. That work earned him a share of the Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Reclamation Conference’s “Mayfly Award” in 2007. Just last month, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on Dawes in recognition of his decades of promoting mine drainage treatment and other watershed restoration projects.  

For someone like Dawes, who regularly deals with perpetual discharges of mine drainage, a long-term perspective is second nature, and the work is never done. In the long view, 2021 is just around the corner, and it is high time to address what comes after – thus Dawes’s trip to Capitol Hill earlier this month.

The AML Fund is critical to restoring lands and waters in Pennsylvania that have been scarred by coal mining. Our state has received more than $1.2 billion in AML Fund grants since 1980, but estimates are that we will need more than $1 billion more just to reclaim those features that threaten public health and safety, such as cliff-like highwalls and barren, mountainous refuse piles. That restoration work often improves water quality by reducing or eliminating sources of silt and mine drainage that contaminate area streams. 

Not all discharges of mine drainage, however, can be eliminated by reclaiming abandoned mine lands. Pennsylvania’s past mining has left many abandoned discharges that require perpetual treatment to prevent continued pollution of our streams. Fortunately, a portion of each state’s annual AML Fund grant may be used to treat these perpetual discharges. The Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been at the forefront in using AML Funds to treat mine drainage discharges, setting aside $131 million from its annual AML Fund grants for that purpose since 1992. 

Nevertheless, abandoned mine drainage remains a predominant water pollution problem in Pennsylvania. It accounts for the impairment of about 5,600 miles of Pennsylvania streams, second only to agriculture among streams with an identified source of impairment.  

Effectively restoring these impaired waters depends in part on the continued availability of money from the AML Fund, which often can be leveraged by matching it with grants from other government and private sources. The continued availability of the AML Fund, in turn, depends on extending the authorization to collect the reclamation fee past the current sunset date of 2021.  

In his testimony to the subcommittee, Dawes recommended that Congress reauthorize the collection of the fee for another 15 years, through 2036, while maintaining certain important features of the AML program and making improvements to others.

Dawes also stressed the need for Congress to act as soon as possible. The long-term planning that is essential for effective land reclamation and mine drainage treatment projects is inhibited by uncertainty over the future availability of reclamation funding. The protracted negotiations over the last reauthorization created precisely this uncertainty. To avoid repeating that scenario, and to demonstrate a commitment to helping the communities hit hardest by the downturn in the coal mining industry, Dawes urged Congress to act well in advance of the 2021 sunset date: “Congress needs to act now, and hopefully before the end of this Congress to reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund fee collection.”

PennFuture echoes this call for Congress to act now. Securing reauthorization of the AML Fund’s reclamation fee is an essential component of any strategy for restoring and removing more streams from Pennsylvania’s list of impaired waters. More generally, reauthorization of the reclamation fee is critical for revitalizing the communities that suffer the burdens of the landscapes and waters scarred by past mining practices. The nation as a whole benefitted from winning the world wars and the industrial and energy production fueled by the coal extracted from those now-abandoned mines, so it is appropriate for the nation to now help alleviate the environmental and social costs those abandoned mines continue to impose on coalfield communities.  

Reauthorization of the federal reclamation fee is one of many topics that will be addressed at the Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Reclamation Conference June 21-22 in Wilkes-Barre. More information about that conference is available by clicking here.

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