Cleaning up abandoned coal mining sites to stop pollution and convert the land to new, environmentally friendly uses will be a challenge to Southwest Virginia communities for a long time to come.

That part is clear, and so is the reason: economics. Communities already reeling from the loss of jobs and tax dollars from discontinued mining operations just don’t have the money to step in and clean up the messes on their own.

One source of revenue to help with reclamation efforts — a federal per-ton tax on mined coal levied on the coal producers — is set to expire in September 2021 and can only be extended by an act of Congress.

While we may agree that such a tax is surely justified, considering just how many former surface mine sites have been left abandoned when operators shut them down and moved on without any remediation, it’s also clear that the effectiveness of the tax is dwindling.

As less coal is produced, the less the tax receipts can cover — especially with mining companies also going bankrupt and out of business throughout the Appalachian coalfields.

Still, it makes sense to continue the tax if it will bring in at least some of the estimated $408 million in reclamation expenses that Southwest Virginia coal counties are facing, according to a recent story in the Bristol Herald Courier.

To that end, the story noted, seven Southwest Virginia localities have approved resolutions since October pushing for a 15-year extension of the tax, which supports the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program.

The program was established to help pay for reclamation of surface mining sites abandoned before 1977, which was when Congress began requiring mine operators to post bonds for reclamation in the event they left mines without cleaning them up.

According to the story, some of the resolutions endorsed a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would reauthorize the per-ton reclamation levy through 2036.

Appalachia, Big Stone Gap, Dungannon, Haysi, Norton, Pound and St. Paul have passed the resolutions urging the state’s congressional delegation to find a solution, according to a news release from the environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

“There is clearly a major need for ongoing cleanup of AML sites, and these resolutions show that local leaders get that,” Thom Kay, the senior legislative representative for Appalachian Voices, said in the release. “Not only will renewal of the AML program help address dangerous and polluting sites, it will create jobs throughout the region.”

The story also noted that Virginia’s U.S. senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, issued statements last week in support of the AML program and that they are co-sponsors of legislation in the Senate similar to bills in the House that would renew the levy for 15 years.

“Extending this program is necessary to continue the important work of cleaning up and revitalizing abandoned mine sites in our coal communities,” Warner said. “This work will help improve the health, safety, and vitality of these communities for decades to come.”

Even if the receipts from the tax continue to dwindle, it’s still necessary to help communities hold coal operators responsible — at least to some extent — for the messes they have left behind.

Thankfully, there is also another federal program — this one not dependent on payments from coal operators — that supports economic and community development on former mining sites.

Called the AML Pilot Program, it has already provided $20 million to Virginia communities for reclamation projects, and there is more money coming. The aim is to redevelop the old mine sites to support outdoor recreation, recycling, waste management, technology and alternative energy projects (such as pump-storage facilities to generate electricity).

A key benefit of these projects is economic development through job creation.

Two new projects — in Wise and St. Paul — totaling about $2 million were announced under the AML Pilot Program last week, and an additional $10 million is expected to be awarded to other projects this year.

Southwest Virginia needs both of these programs to help overcome years of abuse the land has sustained from coal mining activities, and we hope the Congress will come together in a bipartisan effort to extend the coal tax, as well as continue to fund the AML Pilot Program.

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