Capital Clicks

U.S. House panel probes slow cleanup of ‘exploited’ coal mining sites

By: - June 15, 2021 3:26 pm

A field of coal is seen near the Gavin Power Plant on Sept. 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

A U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee examined the cleanup needs for regions transitioning away from coal production Tuesday, with witnesses saying energy companies should be responsible for returning the land to its pre-mining state.

Much of the conversation at the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing centered on the concept of  “environmental justice” and the restoration of mining sites, including at recently closed coal production locations in Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona.

“These communities, and especially Indian Country, have been really exploited,” subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said. “It’s a really horrible, horrible situation.”

But Republicans on the panel criticized opposition to fossil fuels as “job killing,” and said the shift to cleaner energy sources has resulted in employment losses and a hit to economic development in mining regions. Some Western states like Wyoming have been able to strike a balance between environmental protection and fossil fuel production, they said.

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., suggested Wyoming’s experience did not remove responsibility from “deadbeat coal companies” that created “very real burdens and hardship” for struggling communities.

Coal in decline

Coal use has declined by 46% since its peak in 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a U.S. Energy Department agency.

That decline has led to the industry abandoning mines, often without the cleanup required by federal law, said Mary Cromer, the deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, a group that advocates for coal workers and others who live near mining sites.

“As coal declines, coal mining regulations are failing to keep up, and coal companies are increasingly abandoning their environmental obligations, leaving too little in bond money to cover reclamation costs,” she said. “Coalfield communities worry they will be forever burdened with hazardous and unusable land and polluted streams.”

Republicans said federal bureaucracy can slow the process of mine reclamation and held up Wyoming as an example of success.

The state’s coal mines are managed “in a manner that protects the state and provides for responsible coal resource development,” Kyle Wendtland, the administrator of the Wyoming Land Quality Division, testified.

The state annually revises the bonds mining companies pay to ensure there is enough money to reclaim an abandoned mine.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.