Repairing the Damage research findings reflected in Congressional priorities

By October 13, 2021April 9th, 2022No Comments

by Dana Kuhnline

Dana Kuhnline, ReImagine Appalachia Campaign Manager

Repairing the Damage research findings reflected in Congressional priorities

Throughout 2021, ReImagine Appalachia has supported the “Repairing the Damage” series of reports; this series proposes realistic policies that could create tens of thousands of jobs while cleaning up environmental liabilities. We have been honored to partner with incredible experts on these issues at groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Earthjustice, Appalachian Voices, and the Ohio River Valley Institute, to shine a light on the crisis – and the opportunities – presented by the massive economic shifts the region is facing. 

Appalachian communities did not fuel our nation’s prosperity without a cost – thousands of environmental hazards burden our land. Abandoned mine sites, coal ash waste sites, and orphaned oil and gas wells deter development, hurt ecosystems, contribute to the climate crisis, and threaten the health and safety of nearby people.  

These liabilities represent an American infrastructure crisis. 

The region has lost tens of thousands jobs due to the downturn of coal mining, the closure of coal fired power plants and declines and the oil and gas industry. These staggering industry changes have not only hurt families, but had ripple effects across communities, forcing schools to close and a loss of essential services in places hardest hit. 

We can turn these liabilities into job-creating opportunities with investment at the scale of the problem. 

The Repairing the Damage series proposes realistic policies that could create tens of thousands of jobs while cleaning up environmental liabilities. If done correctly, including strong worker safety protections, high labor standards, and input from communities most impacted, cleaning up these sites can create jobs, increase the potential for redevelopment and ensure that all Appalachian communities are places where people can safely live and work. 

We are heartened to see Congress taking up some of these priorities as noted below. 

Unprecedented investments in Abandoned Mine Lands: 

The first report in the series, Repairing the Damage: Cleaning Up the Land, Air, and Water Damaged by the Coal Industry Before 1977, by Eric Dixon with the Ohio River Valley Institute, focused on the Abandoned Mine Land Program. The paper found that the actual clean up needs for old coal sites from the previous century far exceeded current government estimates.

The report revealed an estimated $20.9 billion in abandoned mine lands – this number is nearly twice as high as the government’s current $11 billion cost estimate. Appalachian states carry 84% of unreclaimed costs, with over 565,000 acres of abandoned mine lands burdening the region. 

The good news is that investing in reclamation can create an estimated 17,000 jobs – and Congress agrees. An unprecedented $11.3 billion for this important clean up fund was written into the The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (BID) which passed the Senate in August. 

While this investment would only represent the clean up of half of the estimated remaining liabilities, it would be a game changer for states dealing with abandoned mine lands. 

Billions to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells: 

An estimated 538,000 abandoned wells remain in the Ohio River Valley, and plugging them could cost upwards of $34 billion. The report titled:  Repairing the Damage from Hazardous Abandoned Oil & Gas Wells by Ted Boettner with the Ohio River Valley Institute recommends an initial investment of $5 billion into orphaned well cleanup.

The REGROW Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), was included in the bipartisan infrastructure package, which is now awaiting passage by the House of Representatives. If it were to become law, this bill would provide: 

  • $4.275 billion for orphaned well cleanup on state and private lands.
  • $400 million for orphaned well cleanup on public and tribal lands.
  • $32 million for related research, development, and implementation.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky bear one-third of the nation’s estimated 4 million abandoned wells – and one in five wells that are in production today. The region would not only disproportionately benefit from a large-scale well plugging program, but it would also greatly benefit from more local jobs and income. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal includes many other important investments for the region, as outlined in our blog here. Along with the Build Back Better Act, this bill could deliver transformative investments for the region.  

What’s next for investments to Repair the Damage? 

The third report in the series, Repairing the Damage: The Cost of Delaying Reclamation at Modern Era Mines, by Erin Savage with Appalachian Voices, covered the growing concerns of modern mining damage going unreclaimed. The Abandoned Mine Land fund noted above only covers mining damage from before 1977. The report found an estimated 633,000 acres of modern era mining in need of some degree of reclamation in Central Appalachia.   

To address this impending crisis, the report recommends that the federal government step in to ensure coal companies are held accountable for cleanup, and to fund high-quality, timely reclamation where bonds do not fully cover reclamation needs.

Congress is taking this report, and the needs of communities bearing these burdens seriously. Legislation to address the issue of modern unreclaimed mines is currently being discussed by a growing coalition of stakeholders.