East Tennessee’s Abandoned Coal-Mining Communities Deserve Reclamation, Too

In Small Planet by Patrice Coleleave a COMMENT

Few environmental catastrophes are as photogenic as the recent accidental release of garish yellow water from a Colorado gold mine to the Animas River. There was a lot of drama, with riverside landowners demanding restitution for temporarily losing use of the river and groundwater. What we didn’t see in the news coverage was that the same environmental insult has been trickling along for decades largely out of the public eye in Colorado and elsewhere. It turns out that about the same amount of acidic, metals-laden water that gushed from the Gold King mine on Aug. 5 has been quietly leaking into Colorado rivers and streams every two days from another 230 or so abandoned gold mines.

And the same eye-popping problem we saw in Colorado has been going on at a slower rate but much longer time frame in the Tennessee coal fields a mere hour’s drive from Knoxville.

Coal, like gold and other mined minerals, is found in rock formations that contain many heavy metals. Sulfur deposits in these rocks form sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. The acid dissolves the metals, which then make their way to groundwater and streams. When acid mine drainage hits more neutral water, the metals can precipitate to form a sludge colloquially known as “yellow boy.” That’s the color we saw in the Animas River on Aug. 6, the color of the sludge left behind after the plume of brightly colored water dissipated in a few days. That’s the color that can be seen in many small streams tucked away in Appalachian coal country.

Coal mining is unavoidably damaging to the environment. Surface mining removes the soil and rock, along with all forms of life, that lie above a coal seam. After the coal is removed, reclamation replaces the overburden and attempts to re-contour and re-vegetate the site. Underground mines tunnel into coal seams. Both methods involve explosives that can damage groundwater aquifers, sometimes causing wells to go dry or become so contaminated as to be unusable.

Abandoned mines, and those where reclamation attempts failed, can continue to release acid mine drainage to local streams and groundwater indefinitely. Lost wells and creeks too polluted for cattle to drink from, let alone for fish to live in, are only part of the sad story. Highwalls and open vertical shafts, as well as dangerous equipment left behind, are safety hazards, especially to children. Add landslides and subsidence to the mix, and you have a recipe for long-term economic distress.

Before passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal mining was conducted with little regard to the damage inflicted on the environment or people. Since 1977, there have been stringent controls on how mining is conducted, with particular attention to surface water and groundwater impacts. Mine operators must put up bond money intended to cover the cost of post-mining reclamation in case they go out of business or simply abandon the mine. But most mines that operated prior to 1977, and “wildcat mines” that operated without a permit after 1977, remain unreclaimed unless and until the Abandoned Mining Lands program steps in. The AML program is the responsibility of the federal Office of Surface Mining, and according to OSM there are about 5,200 abandoned coal mines yet to be fully reclaimed in the U.S.

Funding for the AML program has historically come from a fee on current coal production, the idea being that the coal industry would ultimately pay for its environmental legacy. Funds are distributed to states and tribes who then coordinate reclamation, but those distributions are based on current coal production within a state or tribal boundary. Coal mining has shifted to the west in recent years, while most of the remaining AML problems are in the eastern coal fields, so the money isn’t going where it’s most needed. Adding to this inequity is the fact that most of the coal mining job losses have occurred in the east.

A recent publication of the Appalachian Law Center estimates that something like 6.2 million acres of land and water ravaged by abandoned coal mines remain to be remediated, at a cost of almost $10 billion. That’s a lot of money, but consider that American taxpayers have spent $14 billion over the past 10 years just to shore up hurricane protection for New Orleans.

AML funding comes from coal mining, not taxes, and should be distributed according to need and reauthorized beyond 2021 when the program is scheduled to end. The AML program generates thousands of jobs, and if focused in areas most in need of reclamation, could help replace jobs lost when coal companies moved west. Long-term economic benefits could follow reclamation as business opportunities in agriculture, tourism, recreation, and renewable energy production take advantage of restored lands and waterways.

Remediation of abandoned coal mines brings streams and rural communities back to life. Scott, Campbell, and Anderson counties have the most AMLs in Tennessee, but there are plenty of others in Bledsoe, Cumberland, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, Rhea, Roane, Sequatchie, Van Buren, and White counties. Some of those are among the poorest counties in the state, and their residents have suffered greater losses than anyone in the path of the Colorado gold mine disaster. If we don’t see them demanding that their lands and waters be restored by the industry that took their coal and left them environmental and economic devastation in its place, it’s only because it is old news and doesn’t photograph well.

Patrice Cole

Patrice Cole's Small Planet educates readers on local issues pertaining to environmental quality and sustainability. Topics include particular threats to natural resources, public policy with local impacts, and advances in environmental science. She has 25 years of professional experience in environmental science and sustainability. She has also taught biology, ecology, environmental planning, and sustainability at the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College. Cole earned a master’s degree in planning and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at UT.

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