States are misusing funds earmarked for cleaning up coal mines

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is failing to properly oversee state spending, according to a new watchdog report.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

Coal mines are not meant to last forever. When a mine’s natural resources are exhausted, or a coal company deems the mine no longer profitable, they close, often leaving behind scars of environmental degradation like disturbed land and polluted water. Today, there are more than five thousand abandoned coal mines that have yet to be cleaned up across the United States.

In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which, among other things, sought to regulate the way abandoned mines were cleaned up. Part of the act gave states money to clean up mines that had been abandoned before 1977, through the creation of the Abandon Mine Land fund. According to the law, the money could be used for other projects, but coal reclamation projects were to be given priority, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement — part of the Department of the Interior — was directed to make certain the funds were being properly used.

That, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, is not happening. In some cases, OSMRE has failed to ensure that states prioritize coal-reclamation projects above other reclamation projects. In other cases, the office has failed to ensure that states use Abandoned Mine Land reclamation program for reclamation projects altogether — meaning communities living near abandoned mines are left to contend with environmental pollution while money earmarked for cleanup is spent on things like highways and public universities.

Money in the Abandoned Mine Land fund comes from a tax on coal, which coal and mining companies pay per ton. Altogether, there is over $2 billion in the ALM fund — and while the SMCRA requires states that use ALM money to prioritize coal-related reclamation projects over other projects in theory, that is not necessarily what happens in practice.


According to the Interior Department’s report, published last week, states like Wyoming, Montana, and Texas have continually used AML program money on non-coal related reclamation projects, while coal reclamation projects have gone unfunded. In Wyoming, for instance, from 2013 to 2016, the state approved budgets giving $166 million to coal reclamation projects and $214 million to non-coal related reclamation projects. Texas, meanwhile, has spent $16.1 million on non-coal related projects since 2008, but just over $1 million on coal reclamation projects.

Wyoming — which is the top coal producing state in the nation, and therefore the state that contributes most to the ALM fund — has used ALM funds to pay for highway maintenance, hospital additions, and wildlife trusts. In 2012, the Wyoming state legislature even considered appropriating $10 million in ALM funds for renovating the University of Wyoming’s athletic facilities, including the school’s basketball arena, though ultimately the funds were not approved for that project.

Other states spent no money on reclamation projects, despite receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in AML grant money. Mississippi, for instance, has spent $336,063 in AML grant money since 2008, but has made no progress in reclaiming four areas highlighted by the program. The report also found that Mississippi has spent all of its 2015 grant money on administrative costs, including $20,000 spent on a consulting contract with the state’s former program director. None of the money has been spent on reclamation projects, despite the OSMRE encouraging the state several times to make such a change.

The report also found that the OSMRE has failed to properly enforce state reclamation plans. In 2006, Congress amended the SMCRA, but the OSMRE did not require state reclamation plans to be updated in accordance with the amended act. Reclamation plans from Texas and Louisiana date back to the early 1980s.

The report comes as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to argue that the Trump administration’s environmental enforcement plan hinges on returning power to state agencies, which he has long argued are better positioned to deal with local environmental issues than the federal government.


“I will tell you this, Chris,” Pruitt said on Fox News Sunday this weekend, “this attitude in Washington, D.C. that people in Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and Colorado and the rest of the country don’t care about the water they drink or the air they breathe, and are not going to take care of the air and the water locally, I just don’t believe that.”

Sierra Club attorney Peter Morgan, however, told ThinkProgress that the Department of the Interior’s report on state’s misuse of ALM funds highlights the problem with leaving environmental action and enforcement solely up to the discretion of the states.

“This report provides valuable insight into what the priorities are of these states, and it makes clear that their priority is not helping local communities who are dealing with environmental pollution,” Morgan said. “I don’t see any reason why what we’re seeing with these abandoned mine lands would be different with any ongoing or new sources of pollution in those communities.”