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Sustainable development groups create options for abandoned mine lands

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For over a century, Appalachian coal powered electricity generation and steelmaking across the United States and beyond. Loaded hopper cars carried coal out of the region; the damage to Appalachia’s natural landscapes remained. Today, over 490,000 acres of mined land in Central Appalachia require some reclamation or targeted cleanup. The cost of that reclamation may amount to $6 billion, while the available bonds for cleanup only total $2.5 billion.

Since 1977, mining companies have been required under federal law to reclaim mines once they have closed. The Abandoned Mine Land (AML) reclamation program collects fees from coal companies and uses them to address environmental degradation and hazards. Yet most projects have aimed no higher than simply remediating the most serious dangers posed by disused mines and establishing basic utilities for industrial use.

In contrast, a new generation of community groups are pioneering “innovative mine reclamation” — an approach that leans into the promise of the clean energy technologies and sustainable businesses of the 21st century.

The Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition (RAC) is a mix of groups focused on environmental protection, workforce development and community-based revitalization. Last month, the RAC published its third report, Restoration and Renewal: The New Appalachian Economy. In it are 19 case studies highlighting innovative projects that not only reclaim lands marked by the physical impact of coal mining, but also offer a tangible vision of a future based on conservation, circular economy, tourism and renewable energy.

Here are three examples from the report that demonstrate the promise of innovative mine reclamation.

The Wilds/Trout Lake Impoundment

These 10,000 acres of eastern Ohio saw extensive surface mining, leaving behind a 13-acre lake full of contaminated mining waste classified as a dangerous impoundment. But the surrounding lands showed promise as an excellent example of a restored grassland habitat. In the late 1970s, the Columbus Zoo got involved with the site, and years of regrowth furthered its transformation.

New residents began to arrive – giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, rhinoceroses, ostriches, and native eastern hellbender salamanders. The wide-open space offers unique opportunities for ecosystem research that will continue to support conservation efforts across the region.

The Wilds – a nonprofit that was formed to connect people and wildlife at the site – runs safari-style tours for school groups and the public. Over 120,000 visitors toured the property in 2018. To get to the grasslands, however, buses must drive the haul road across an embankment that holds back 33 million gallons of dangerous water.

Recently, the embankment showed signs of deteriorating, threatening access to the animals and imperiling research and educational outreach. The Wilds and the Columbus Zoo are experienced in the challenges of dealing with nonnative plants and acid mine drainage, but shoring up an embankment holding back a dangerous impoundment demanded more resources. The Wilds put in the initial work of preparing the site, and the federal AML program funded the rest, containing the mine wastewater far apart from the exotic animals.

Mingo County Reuse Center

The Appalachian Reuse Corridor is a regional logistics network that collects, transports and stores materials that might otherwise be thrown away, like plastics, compostables, e-waste and construction materials. The project deliberately aims to support makers and craftspeople while creating value from potential waste.

One of this network’s projects is being constructed on remediated abandoned mine lands near Matewan, West Virginia, just north of the Tug Fork River. This hilly corner of the state was a hotbed of labor unrest between miners and coal company private detectives, culminating in the 1920 “Battle of Matewan.” Rich history aside, the area’s economy has been centered around coal, with limited diversification. In 2000, the Hatfield-McCoy trail system opened, named after the area’s legendary family feud. The trails have since become a popular outdoor recreation destination.

The Mingo County Reuse Center will serve as a regional collection and processing hub for compostable organics and traditional recyclable materials. The Coalfield Development Corporation is spearheading the project, which will bring stable jobs and training while reducing waste and supporting the circular economy. It will also reduce litter and beautify areas of the Hatfield-McCoy trail, supporting the recreation and tourism sectors of the economy. AML funding, Bloomberg Philanthropies funding and a USDA grant all support the project.

Solar Suitability Tool

Sometimes, finding a location capable of supporting sustainable development can be costly in both time and money. The Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR) has developed a site selection tool that uses map data to find locations for potential solar energy projects on abandoned mine lands. Using ArcGIS mapping and analytics software, the tool makes digital elevation models and “reads” them to identify potential solar sites on abandoned mine lands. These lands are relatively flat, and in hilly places can be some of the only level ground available. They are often sparsely vegetated and offer ideal sites for solar power.

The tool has already identified 18 sites across five different counties in Pennsylvania coal country – over 1,200 acres of AML land with good potential for solar development. Community groups will use information from the model to connect landowners with potential solar developers. Efficiently finding suitable sites can lower the building costs of solar energy, increasing sustainable development opportunities and adding more clean, renewable energy to the grid.

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Appalachian coal country’s economic transition presents real challenges for many communities. These are just a few of the many projects, policies and businesses with a small but vital role in helping to build that transition. Their sustainability derives from the creativity of local Appalachians, looking at their neighbors, resources and land and envisioning opportunities greater than the sum of their parts. This model of innovative reclamation can and should be replicated across Appalachia and beyond.

Advancing this goal is the federal Abandoned Mine Land program, which supported the development and completion of many of the projects highlighted by the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition. Continuing and expanding this program should be a national priority, as fees from coal production are both insufficient and gradually shrinking. There’s only $2.2 billion left in the AML trust fund, less than a fifth of what reclaiming these lands will cost.

The future of the AML program now rests in Congress, where bipartisan legislation to disburse $1 billion and extend the program – the RECLAIM Act – was introduced on March 10.

Photo courtesy of Don Iannone, Cleveland, Ohio