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Community advocates welcome Cartwright’s new legislation to fight zombie mine crisis

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April 11, 2024

Trey Pollard, 202-904-9187, [email protected]

APPALACHIA — Community advocates from across Pennsylvania and Appalachia celebrated the introduction of two bills by Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., that would take crucial action to address some of the root causes of the “zombie mine” crisis — the increasing number of non-producing modern-era mines that have not been cleaned up by the coal companies responsible for operating them. Cartwright’s two bills take aim at current deficiencies and loopholes in the law regarding the bonding process. The bills will help restore accountability for coal mine operators and save taxpayers millions by eliminating reckless self-bonding practices and requiring operators to put down the full cost required for cleanup of their mines.

“As the coal industry collapses, coal mine operators are walking away from serious problems and leaving communities to face water pollution and safety hazards without sufficient resources,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “We applaud Rep. Cartwright’s bills to help ensure that mine cleanup remains the responsibility of the mine operator.”

“Coal mine operators have been shedding their environmental obligations for decades, placing the burden of mining damages, such as thousands of miles of polluted waterways, on the communities already burdened by the economic fall-out that accompanies a reduction in coal production,” said Madison Hinkle, Esq., Community Advocate for Mountain Watershed Association. “It is imperative that the mine operators that benefit from the land and labor of the community bear the brunt of environmental obligations they create. These bills are the first step in ensuring these decade-long injustices are adequately accounted for and corrected.”

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was supposed to ensure that no mines permitted after its passage — known as “modern coal mines” — would be abandoned without funds available to reclaim them. Typically, these funds would be made available in the form of bonds provided for by the mine operator upon receiving a permit. If the mine operator did not clean up a mine, the bond would be forfeited, theoretically providing the state with enough money to cover the cost of clean-up. However, SMCRA is riddled with loopholes and problems that have allowed many mine operators to put down bonds that aren’t commensurate with clean-up costs. This has allowed coal mine operators to avoid responsibility for cleaning up their mines. The decline in coal exports expected due to the deadly Francis Scott Bridge collapse only increases the uncertainty for the coal mining industry and the risk of bankruptcy and bond forfeiture.

Rep. Cartwright’s Coal Cleanup Taxpayer Protection Act primarily targets the practice of self-bonding — a policy permitted by some state regulators that allows for mine operators to merely promise to pay for clean up rather than put down any money or other collateral. If the company responsible for a mine closes its doors before completing reclamation, the promise is broken. Mines that are self-bonded are particularly vulnerable to becoming zombie mines, as regulators have little recourse for pushing for reclamation or collecting bond money. Cartwright’s bill would end self-bonding by barring state regulators from allowing the practice — a simple fix to a daunting problem.

“Pennsylvania regulators never accepted self-bonding due to its inadequacy — it fails to ensure full reclamation coverage,” said Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of The Citizens Coal Council. “The Citizens Coal Council praises Rep. Cartwright for introducing a bill to eliminate self-bonding.”

“While many states have reduced or eliminated the number of self-bonds being utilized, these bonds are still legally allowed in more than 20 states and utilized in at least five states,” said Erin Savage, Senior Program Manager with Appalachian Voices. “As pressure on the industry increases, it will become harder for coal companies to obtain third-party bonds, so states may come under pressure to allow more risky self-bonds. Disallowing this type of bonding will help to ensure that coal cleanup costs don’t fall to community members.”

Additionally, some states utilize pool bonds, where coal companies pay only a fraction of reclamation costs into a shared pool. The Coal Cleanup Taxpayer Protection Act also adds requirements regarding other forms of alternative bonding, such as pool bonding, to ensure that state bonding programs will actually guarantee that reclamation is completed. The legislation is backed by original cosponsors Reps. Debbie Dingell (MI-06), Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Raul Grijalva (AZ-07), Jared Huffman (CA-02), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Summer Lee (PA-12), Jerry Nadler (NY-12), Grace Napolitano (CA-31), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-12).

The Bond Improvement and Reclamation Assurance Act also introduced today by Rep. Cartwright further tackles the bonding issue by requiring full-cost bonding. While SMCRA requires coal companies to post bonds that would give regulatory agencies the funds to reclaim mines as needed, in practice, many state bonding programs are insufficient and bond amounts are set too low. Cartwright’s legislation updates the law to change the broken status quo, requiring that bond amounts are sufficient to cover actual cleanup costs for each individual mine. Original cosponsors for the bill include Chris Deluzio (PA-17), Raul Grijalva (AZ-07), Jared Huffman (CA-02), Summer Lee (PA-12) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-12).

“Inadequate bonding shifts the burden to taxpayers if regulators miscalculate. Full-cost bonds are essential to protect taxpayers from bearing reclamation costs,” said Erickson.

“Zombie” mines, or modern coal mines which have not produced coal nor demonstrated reclamation work for months or years, constitute an unknown percentage of the total of coal mines nationwide, and many of these will never produce coal again. However, in part as a result of these loopholes and regulatory inconsistencies or gaps, there are nearly 1 million acres of modern coal mines in 14 states that have not yet been reclaimed, according to analyses by the Western Organization of Resource Councils and Appalachian Voices.

These mines typically leave the surrounding communities vulnerable to water pollution and other hazards. Moreover, the problem is anticipated only to grow amid the ongoing decline of the coal industry — and the risks are often more serious than with pre-1977 mines as newer abandoned mines are often larger, closer to communities and result in more environmental damage than older mines. Recently, the Government Accountability Office confirmed it was investigating the scope of the problem after pressure from advocates and eight members of Congress.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 deploys significant resources to clean up abandoned coal mines from before the 1977 enactment of SMCRA, but modern coal mines are treated differently under the law and no such resources exist to clean them up. More than 50 community and national organizations released a policy platform earlier this year in an effort to prevent costly and dangerous zombie mines. Cartwright’s legislation reflects several of the priorities from that platform, which emphasized the need for full-cost bonds and an end to self-bonding.

“Unreclaimed modern era coal mines pose safety and environmental risks for Pennsylvania communities,” said Annie Regan, Senior Program Manager for Pennfuture. “But coal reclamation isn’t just about restoring land; it’s about revitalizing communities and creating sustainable livelihoods. Addressing the reclamation backlog for these modern-era coal mines has the potential to create good, family sustaining jobs where they are needed most.”


The post Community advocates welcome Cartwright’s new legislation to fight zombie mine crisis appeared first on Appalachian Voices.

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