WV Abandoned Mine Lands Cleaned Up in 13 Years?

The State Journal
24 April 2012
By Pam Kasey

For those who read the Wall Street Journal last week, a graphic showing that West Virginia could clean up its abandoned mine land problems in 13 years might have seemed vastly more optimistic than past reports — and in fact it was.

"It's not going to be done in 13 years," said Eric Coberly, chief of abandoned mine lands and reclamation for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

West Virginia was not the focus of the April 19 Wall Street Journal article "States Mine Federal Funds Long After Need Is Gone." The story was about how coal states that have finished cleaning up mines abandoned before the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act — reclaiming such problems as highwalls and open portals — spend the revenues they still receive from the industry for such clean-up.

But West Virginia was listed in a graphic among several states where abandoned mine lands, or AML, programs are underfunded.

Kansas, the graphic showed, gets $3 million this year and will take 76 years at that rate to complete its clean-up. Oklahoma's $3 million would finish the job in 28 years. Pennsylvania, receiving $67 million this year, would need 25 years.

And West Virginia, receiving $67 million this year, would need 13 years to overcome the legacy of pre-1977 mining.

"But we don't get $66.5 million forever," Coberly said.

West Virginia is experiencing a peak now it its AML payouts, he said.

The state received $20 million to $25 million a year before a 2006 change in the way reclamation taxes are distributed to the states, Coberly said. In 2008 and 2009, the state got about $40 million, then about $50 million in 2010 and 2011. The current rate of about $67 million is in place this year and next, and then it drops down again.

And that covers everything from program administration to chipping away at the site inventory to emergencies, he said.

OSMRE estimates the total cost to clean up West Virginia's AML inventory at $929 million and the total payout until the program is set to end in 2022 at $627 million.

"So there's no end to it," Coberly said.

He said great progress has been made since he first joined the section in 1984.

"In the '80s and even up into the mid-'90s, you could drive down the main highway from Princeton to Welch and not have to get out of the vehicle to write up millions of dollars worth of work," he said. "Now you have to go up a holler somewhere to get into some sizeable jobs."

A mixed positive is that some highwalls that looked like high priorities in the 1980s have since, without reclamation, sloughed and been overgrown and no longer pose a threat.

Those represent a part of the $929 million clean-up estimate that no longer needs attention, he said, acknowledging at the same time what he said is probably a larger total cost of sites that never appeared on the inventory.

Coberly doesn't worry about projected lower sales of West Virginia coal affecting his program's funding.

Most program funding comes from sales of Wyoming coal. Just over half of fees collected come from Wyoming, he said; West Virginia contributes only 11 or 12 percent.