Abandoned Mine Lands in Virginia

Virginia’s long history of coal mining has left a significant legacy of abandoned mine lands (AMLs). The result is a substantial amount of environmental pollution, in the form of toxic sedimentation, accessing Virginia’s waterways damaging the health of residents and ecosystems.

Hurricane Fork AML site in southwest Virginia.

Hurricane Fork AML site in southwest Virginia. Notice the large pile of waste coal, or “gob”, in the backgound.

State policy towards AMLs, and their timely remediation, must be evaluated to find an effective and efficient solution.

Prompt reclamation of AMLs is necessary to:

  • protect human health
  • improve and preserve water quality
  • minimize impacts to wildlife—especially Threatened, Endangered, and Species of Concern
  • minimize negative impacts to ecosystems.

AMLs are, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM), “…lands and waters adversely impacted by inadequately reclaimed surface coal mining operations.” 

OSM goes on to state, “Environmental problems associated with abandoned mine lands include surface and ground water pollution, entrances to open mines, water-filled pits, un-reclaimed or inadequately reclaimed refuse piles and mine sites (including some with dangerous highwalls), sediment-clogged streams, damage from landslides, and fumes and surface instability resulting from mine fires and burning coal refuse.”

 

Priority 1 and 2 AML sites

Priority 1 and 2 AML sites.

Scope

  • Over 2,000 Priority 1 and 2 sites in Virginia
  • It would take an estimated 55 years to remediate Priority 1 sites at current levels
  • It would require an estimated $180 million to reclaim Virginia’s Priority 1 and 2 sites

For an AML map viewer with downloadable data visit here. And for more AML information nationwide visit here.

Underlying Science

Scientific evidence has shown sedimentation resulting from AMLs to be problematic for the health of humans and ecosystems [i]. Additional research has demonstrated negative impacts on water quality and aquatic populations resulting from drainage off AMLs [ii]. Though it is known that these pollutants cause harm, there is more to be understood about the thresholds in which they are acceptable [iii]. Furthermore, there is much to be known about the value that this pollution, or its remediation, represents in a greater societal context[iv]. This scientific body of research and the associated costs of sedimentation from abandoned mines reinforce the importance of this issue to Virginia.

Relationship to Existing Environmental Laws and Regulations

At the federal level, AMLs are under the legal jurisdiction of the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM). OSM was granted this authority, at its creation, with the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), revised 2006. Under SMCRA, OSM’s responsibilities include, “reclaiming lands damaged by surface mining and abandoned mines”.

At the state level, Virginia’s Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR), of the Department of Mines, Mineral, and Energy (DMME), and been granted primacy regulatory authority. Under this agreement, DMLR, and its corresponding AML program, are responsible for the management and reclamation of AMLs in Virginia. With the existing DMLR AML program, per ton fees are collected for mined coal. Currently, $0.35 per ton is collected for surface-mined coal and $0.15 per ton is collected for deep-mined coal. This program is the primary regulation for AMLs in Virginia.

Other agencies with lesser involvement in AMLs include the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). These agencies are granted regulatory authority through the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). With regard to AMLs, under Section 319 of the CWA, the EPA provides grants to states and industry for activities related to the clean up and mitigation of pollution sites[vii].

Alternatives Analysis

In attempting to identify a possible solution and  provide a thorough and complete examination for addressing AMLs, a collection of varied alternatives are analyzed in detail. While other options obviously exist for remediation of AML sites, these alternatives provide a broad range of options for consideration.

AML Policy Alternatives

 

Political Analysis

Beyond a costs analysis for each alternative, a political analysis is also completed. This identifies three primary stakeholders: industry, environmentalists, and the public. Each stakeholder’s positions are applied to the alternatives in order to evaluate their likely responses.

AML_Political Analysis

 

Other Decision Factors

In addition to costs and political feasibility, other factors that may influence the policy decision are identified.  These added criteria are included to provide a more balanced and well-rounded approach for analysis.

Additional considered decision factors are:

  • Optimize Effectiveness
  • Minimize Time
  • Promote Human Health
  • Increase Ecosystem Health
  • Improve Water Quality
  • Provide Social Equity
  • Improve and Preserve Aesthetics
  • Provide Local Stimulus
  • Provide Public Safety

Decision Matrix

In attempting to objectify the decision-making process, a matrix is created assigning weights to individual criteria and then applying ratings for those criteria to each alternative. This provided a proportional score for each alternative relative to the others. Notice some criteria were not weighted in the decision matrix. This is because these criteria either carry too little weight to influence the decision or are a component of one of the other weighted criteria.

AML_Decision Matrix

 

Policy Recommendation

Given all considerations, the policy recommendation for AMLs in Virginia is to increase the AML fees to $0.70 per ton for surface-mined coal and $0.30 per ton for deep-mined coal, under the existing program. It is reasoned that this increase in revenues can allow more sites to be reclaimed in a shorter amount of time. Based on current coal prices, this would increase the fee from 0.6 percent to 1.2 percent of the gross per ton revenue, but can potentially cut the time horizon for reclamation in half to approximately 22.5 years. The period is important with AMLs because the longer these sites remain on the landscape, the longer sedimentation pollutes waterways, thereby damaging human and ecosystem health.

Conclusion

This problem is fortunate to address because it is finite—a solution is known and can be completed. AMLs are a legacy of Virginia’s coal mining history that must be remedied in order to ensure a thriving future. While a solution that still takes 22 and a half years is not ideal, it is one that can be solved. AMLs are known and inventoried. There are practical methods, such as re-mining, for remediation that allows for clean-up and in many cases for the resource to be put to use.

AMLs is a problem that doesn’t get much attention because it is often limited to poor, rural areas and doesn’t involve new disturbance or many contentious permits. Yet it is important that this water quality issue be addressed. Please contact your favorite environmental advocacy organization or your local governmental representative. Make sure they know what AMLs are doing to our water supply.


[i] Peplow D, Edmonds R. “The Effects of Mine Waste Contamination at Multiple Levels of Biological Organization”. Ecological Engineering, Volume 24 Issue 1-2. 101-119. January 2005.

[ii] Schorr MS, Backer JC.  “Localized effects of coal mine drainage on fish assemblages in a Cumberland Plateau stream in Tennessee”.  Journal of Freshwater Ecology, Volume 21 Issue 1. 17-24. March 2006.

[iii] Peplow D, Edmonds R. “Health Risks Associated with Contamination of Groundwater by Abandoned Mines Near Twisp in Okanogan County, Washington, USA”. Environmental Geochemistry and Health, Volume 26 Issue 1. 69-79. March 2004.

[iv] Zipper, C. “Opportunities for improved surface coal mine reclamation in the Central Appalachian coal fields”. Virginia Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., Blacksburg, Virginia. 1986

 

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About Stuart Hale

Stuart is a forest and natural resource professional focused on ecosystem services, GIS/data management, and sustainable forestry. Find him on Twitter.

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