Mine cleanup program offers glimmer of hope for Wyoming

CASPER — In one of few bright spots for Wyoming’s economy, environmental regulators say cleanup projects at abandoned mine sites have been in full swing across the state, not only producing much-needed jobs, but funneling millions of dollars into local economies. 

In recent months, the Department of Environmental Quality has taken up Gov. Mark Gordon’s call to accelerate the cleanup of energy sites to employ more workers and spur the economy during the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before the adoption of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, federal and state governments did not require coal companies to perform remediation work at mined sites. The Abandoned Mine Land fund was established to help ameliorate the scars left behind from intensive coal mining by pumping money into state-led reclamation programs. 

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is one of the 25 agencies across the country certified to oversee an abandoned mine land reclamation program. 

And recent data show the state continues to lead the charge in cleaning up these abandoned sites. The state predicts it will complete 96 projects and generate $201 million for local economies by the end of 2020. 

So far, 38 projects have been completed this year. 

Last year, 86 projects were completed, employing 774 workers, including contractors and subcontractors, and pumping about $155 million into local economies, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Research and Planning Office.

Reclamation tasks at abandoned mine sites often involve the arduous tasks of filling in underground mine tunnels using concrete grout or dumping truckloads of dirt into open mine pits. 

Many of the abandoned sites once functioned as underground mines and carry the dangerous risk of subsidence or sinkholes. 

“Obviously, the core benefit of these projects is to reclaim the land back to productive use and reduce the environmental and human health impacts left by these abandoned mines,” Todd Parfitt, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “However, these projects have also financially stimulated Wyoming communities and our citizens for decades.” 

Over the past four decades, the program has restored over 25,000 acres and filled underground mines with 110,942 cubic yards of concrete grout. 

New numbers on the program’s progress came one day after the governor imposed the latest round of state budget cuts, amounting to more than $250 million in reductions as the state reels from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and unemployment claims have skyrocketed. 

“Wyoming’s management of the (Abandoned Mine Land) program has transformed former coal mines into hundreds of acres of pasture, trees and water features,” Gordon said. “It truly is a form of recycling. Wyoming gets the benefit of millions of dollars from the coal and these areas are restored for the benefit of our communities. During these challenging economic times, we have lengthened our stride to provide jobs through this valuable program.” 

For over four decades, the federal government has been gradually building a pot of money to devote to the reclamation, or cleanup, of these hazardous swaths of land disturbed by mineral extraction. 

Coal companies are charged a fee for every ton of coal they produced to support the program. 

Wyoming receives more funding for its abandoned mine land reclamation program than any other state. But the federal government’s authority to collect the fees that fund the program is on track to expire next year. 

“As Wyoming produces (the) most coal nationally, we in turn pay the most into the AML program to help remediate these abandoned sites,” said Alan Edwards, the deputy director and the Abandoned Mine Land administrator at the Department of Environmental Quality. 

Wyoming receives its portion of the fund through the U.S. Treasury when it applies for the annual Abandoned Mine Land grants. 

In fiscal year 2020, Wyoming will benefit from $35.8 million in grants. 

The state produces more coal than anywhere else in the nation. 

In response to the impending deadline, Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi introduced legislation in June to both amend and extend the collection of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation fee. The bill would allow the government to collect fees for seven more years, through 2028. 

Barrasso and Enzi’s bill would also commit $2.2 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land fund specifically toward “accelerated grants” for remediation of the most environmentally hazardous spots. 

What’s more, the rate of the fee would drop by 35% in an effort to provide relief to coal companies struggling with the downturn in coal markets. 

Potential cuts to the program worry some landowner and conservation groups. Throughout the West, over one-third of all land disturbed by strip mining has yet to be reclaimed after a half-century of intensive extraction in the region, according to a report published by the Western Organization of Resource Councils. 

Half of the money collected by the program flows back to certified programs, like Wyoming’s, around the country to support local oversight and roll-out of the massive cleanup projects. 

This year, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt made $170.9 million in grants available to states and tribes for mine reclamation. According to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, cleaning up all the 6,079 abandoned mining sites across the U.S. would require at least $12.5 billion.