Companies May Be Dodging Reclamation Liabilities by Claiming Abandoned Mines are Active, Posing Risks to Communities
For immediate release
January 11, 2023
WHITESBURG, KY— This morning, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center released a new report that includes a comprehensive analysis of surface coal mining permits in Kentucky and whether or not they are actually producing coal or are “functionally abandoned.” The report uncovers some startling findings, including the fact that nearly forty percent of surface mine permits classified as active have not produced coal since 2020. This finding illustrates an enforcement failure, allowing mines to delay reclamation and creating health and safety risks to nearby communities.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 requires that coal operators reclaim mines contemporaneously with coal removal. This report illustrates this is not always happening. Meaningful reclamation progress has not occurred on many mines even years after coal production has ceased. If a permit in active status is no longer producing coal nor classified by the state as in active reclamation status, the report characterizes the permit as being functionally abandoned. In addition to 40 percent of so-called “active” mines that are functionally abandoned and not producing coal in the last three years, the report finds:
- These functionally abandoned permits include nearly 12,000 acres of disturbed land.
- 27 of these permits have not produced coal for over five years and several have not produced for more than a decade.
- Nearly half of the functionally abandoned surface permits we identified in Kentucky are located in Pike County, Kentucky.
Recent downward trends in the demand for coal, as well as recent coal bankruptcies, have led to growing concerns about whether coal mines will be adequately and timely reclaimed, and who will bear the costs of that reclamation. The results highlight an underlying concern. If a permittee fails to reclaim a mine, the state regulators may ultimately be responsible, and recent bankruptcies reveal that the funds made available to the state through coal company reclamation bonds are often insufficient. In order to ensure sufficient funding for reclamation, the report’s authors recommend that:
- State regulators redetermine the required bond amounts for all functionally abandoned permits.
- State regulators re-examine all permits that have not produced coal since 2020, moving them into reclamation status, and using the full reach of their enforcement authorities to spur immediate reclamation of these sites. If the permittee fails to comply with the state’s enforcement actions, the state should move forward with forfeiture proceedings.
“When coal companies stop producing from mines, they are legally required to clean up their mess. But these findings show they are delaying reclamation, maintaining mines in active status even though the likelihood that these mines will produce coal again appears very slim ,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “With forty percent of Kentucky’s supposedly active mines generating no coal production, it is essential that Kentucky’s regulators stringently enforce the law to ensure that coal companies maintain their responsibility for clean-up costs and communities don’t have to shoulder the burden of degrading mines in their backyards that companies leave behind.”