Most of us here in Southwest Virginia have seen the ugliness left behind by abandoned coal surface-mining sites, and we are aware of the struggles our once-thriving, coal-producing communities face in rehabilitating these eyesores.

Strip-mine reclamation has long been an issue in our otherwise beautiful mountain areas. Many of these abandoned sites will present challenges for our local and regional authorities to deal with for years to come.

And it’s a problem that’s likely to get worse before it gets better — especially as the coal industry continues to wind down amid its own financial woes, with little to offer in the way of monetary support for reclamation efforts.

With this in mind, we can see some hope in the form of projects like the one announced last week for an abandoned mine site in Wise County, which will be converted into a large-scale solar power-generating facility.

The conversion of the abandoned mine will be the first project of its kind in Southwest Virginia, made possible by a $500,000 grant from a program focused on reclaiming and developing abandoned mine sites, according to a story by Tim Dodson in the Bristol Herald Courier.

When completed, the new solar energy field will be able to generate more than 3 megawatts of clean energy for the Mineral Gap Data Center, according to an announcement by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Mineral Gap is a 65,000-square-foot secure data center operated by DP Facilities Inc. on 22 acres in Wise County, the newspaper reported.

The Wise County Industrial Development Authority, which received the grant, will use the money to prepare the site for the solar farm, adjacent to the Data Center in the Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park in Wise.

The announcement noted that the initial $500,000 comes from the federally supported Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program administered by the state mines department.

“Areas that were once mined are underused,” the department’s deputy director, Butch Lambert, said in the announcement. “We have thousands of acres that have the potential to have a great impact to the economy of Southwest Virginia. This solar development provides a great example for others to see the potential in historic and reclaimed coal mining lands.”

The grant is part of an initial $10 million provided to the state department by the U.S Treasury Department to find abandoned mine sites that would be suitable for such economic development projects in Southwest Virginia.

Cleaning up and repurposing the abandoned mine site will create jobs during site-preparation activities and for the installation and continued operation of the solar facility, the mining department noted. Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar will install the solar system.

The resulting clean energy is expected to help the data center — which also brings jobs — to expand its customer base and thrive in the community.

A secondary benefit, the department said, is that reclaiming the mine land could help improve water quality in the area. Runoff of contaminated water into nearby streams has long been a problem associated with surface mining.

The Herald Courier also said that the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program is supporting $47,420 in improvements to the Country Cabin II music venue in Norton, which will allow it to operate year-round.

There is more money coming, the department said. It anticipates getting an additional $10 million to support economic development projects to be chosen next year.

This is great news for the people and communities of Southwest Virginia, and we should welcome and give our support to as many projects like these as we can attract to our region.

Besides cleaning up some of our most unsightly messes, these projects can help bring jobs and hope to our region as we continue to shift away from reliance on a coal-based economy.

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