Original Article Written for the Charleston Gazette by Mike Tony
Momentum is building for federal legislation aimed at strengthening abandoned coal mine reclamation provisions that advocates say would go a long way toward cleaning up Appalachia.
Mine cleanup advocates have welcomed new support from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for a bill aimed at curbing mining-caused water pollution.
The senators’ backing comes ahead of a House subcommittee hearing planned for Thursday at which five bills will be considered that are designed to limit environmental and health burdens from mining that West Virginians have carried for generations.
Manchin and Capito on Tuesday co-sponsored a bill that was introduced in a bipartisan fashion that would allow states to set aside a portion of abandoned mine land funding from a sweeping infrastructure law signed into law by President Joe Biden in November to treat acid mine drainage.
The Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines (STREAM) Act would authorize states to allot up to 30% of their annual abandoned mine land funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into an interest-bearing account for acid mine drainage treatment.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., introduced the STREAM Act in March after the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said the infrastructure law does not allow states to direct funding it provides for cleanup funding into set-aside accounts that cover acid mine drainage treatment costs.
“This is a common-sense bill that is crucial to cleaning up waterways in West Virginia and across Appalachia,” Chelsea Barnes, legislative director of the environmental group Appalachian Voices, said of the STREAM Act in an email.
Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, called the support from Manchin and Capito “important momentum” toward tackling acid mine drainage.
The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center is a Whitesburg, Kentucky-based nonprofit law firm that represents landowners looking to prevent mining and coal miners on black lung and mine safety issues.
The federal infrastructure law provides $11.29 billion in abandoned mine land grant funding over 15 years to eligible states and tribes.
The Department of the Interior and proponents of the sweeping legislation say abandoned mine reclamation projects will support jobs by investing in projects that close hazardous mine shafts, reclaim unstable slopes and boost water quality by treating acid mine drainage.
Manchin’s office projected the infrastructure law will provide more than $1 billion for West Virginia to address more than 140,000 acres of abandoned mine land sites and more than 1,500 miles of streams contaminated from acid mine drainage.
Barnes hopes more senators will sign on in the coming weeks to ensure state set-aside accounts for acid mine drainage treatment before the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement starts releasing funds under the law to states.
The Department of the Interior released draft guidance last month for eligible states and the Navajo Nation on how to apply for the first $725 million in funding available for abandoned mine land reclamation.
Friends of Blackwater, Friends of the Cheat, Friends of Deckers Creek, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the West Virginia Water Research Institute were among the organizations to endorse the Senate and House versions of the STREAM Act in March.
The House version of the STREAM Act was introduced by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.
What’s at stake, watershed protectors say, isn’t just the environmental health of rivers and streams, but hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue from fishing, boating, kayaking, and other recreational activities lost due to a lack of clean water driven by funding restrictions in the infrastructure law.
The House version of the STREAM Act will be considered at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
So will another measure that environmental groups have gotten behind: the RENEW (Revitalize, Enhance and Nurture in Expanded Ways Our Abandoned Mine Lands) Act.
Introduced by Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., the RENEW Act would authorize annual grants of $385 million through 2032 to set up a grant program with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Environmental advocates are counting on the bill to support state efforts to obtain funding to address reclamation bond shortfalls for sites mined after the 1977 passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
The Abandoned Mine Land program enables reclamation of mines abandoned before the 1977 passage of that law.
The RENEW Act’s endorsers include the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, the ReImagine Appalachia coalition of community groups, and the West Virginia Council of Churches.
“The RENEW Act would be an incredible win-win for Appalachian communities — creating jobs while cleaning up the environment,” Dana Kuhnline, campaign manager for ReImagine Appalachia, predicted in a statement earlier this month.
A June audit report warned that West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection mine cleanup funds are nearing insolvency.
The report found state lawmakers and environmental regulators risk letting West Virginia’s mining reclamation program slip into insolvency through gaping holes in statutory and permitting oversight.
The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources also will consider the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, a bill that would place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bill has been reintroduced by Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., after stalling in past sessions. Studies have linked mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia to elevated cancer, low birth weight, and mortality rates. In 2017, the Trump administration halted a study of health impacts from mountaintop removal mining ordered by the Obama administration.
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