‘Zombie Mines’ in Kentucky Pose Serious Environmental and Safety Risks

Source: MSN/The Cool Down

In March, a federal investigation will begin, after a group in Kentucky found that many coal mines in the state are inactive but still dangerous. The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit in Whitesburg, Kentucky, released a report about these “zombie” mines. 

Out of 126 mines listed as active, 48 are no longer producing coal. Among them, 27 haven’t produced anything for over five years, and some have been abandoned for more than a decade. This means around 40% of the state’s mines are in this non-producing and hazardous state.

Functionally Abandoned Mines: A Looming Hazard

In total, there are 48 mines out of 126 active ones that are considered “functionally abandoned.” This means they are no longer properly maintained or managed. These abandoned mines cover about 19 square miles of land in the state. 

Source: Flickr/Bobby Magee

They also leave behind approximately 15 miles of dangerous cliffs known as “high walls.” These high walls are hazardous to both people and the environment.

Threats To Safety And Environment

Strip mines, which are a type of surface mining used for coal extraction, are supposed to undergo reclamation shortly after the blasting and digging processes are completed. However, many of these mines have been left unreclaimed, posing risks to public safety and environmental health.

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Environmental advocates have been working for several years to quantify the extent of this problem. They argue that the situation has worsened, particularly with the decline of the coal economy.

Coal Companies’ Neglected Responsibility

As coal companies face bankruptcy, they have ceased contributing to industry-funded programs aimed at ensuring proper mine stabilization and cleanup. When a mining company finishes operations at a site, they are expected to undertake basic restoration work to rehabilitate the land.

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Modern mining techniques often involve removing trees and soil from mountaintops and depositing the debris into nearby valleys. This practice can lead to pollution of streams and waterways. 

Essential Mine Restoration Funding

Additionally, the displaced debris creates steep, hazardous cliffs on the mining site. At the end of a mine’s lifespan, the company is responsible for rebuilding the landscape, including reestablishing vegetation and restoring water quality. 

Source: X/Joeontheloose

It is crucial for companies to secure funding at the outset of a mining project to cover the costs of restoration, even in the event of bankruptcy. This ensures that the land can be properly rehabilitated and protected for the benefit of both present and future generations.

Mining Companies Dragging Their Feet

However, many mining companies appear to be dragging their feet. “Some coal companies are idling mines and stalling reclamation to cut costs,” wrote a group of eight lawmakers calling for an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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 “Because mine operators typically rely on coal revenue to fund reclamation, the longer a mine remains idle, the greater the risk that the operator may not have sufficient funds to pay for reclamation.”

Federal Probe; The First Step

When this occurs, pollution from the open mine harms nearby rivers and communities downstream. Also, it hurts plants and animals by destroying their homes.

Source: Mail and Guardian/Felix Dlangamandla

Thankfully, a federal investigation will shed light on this issue, not just in Kentucky, but across the region. This is the first step in enforcing stricter rules to clean up these abandoned mine sites.

Democrats Secure Federal Investigation Into Zombie Mines

In October, eight Democratic lawmakers, including one from Kentucky and two from Pennsylvania, asked for a federal investigation to understand the full extent of environmental damage caused by the “zombie mines.” These mines can leak toxic waste and send boulders into homes.

Source: Post News Group/Stacey Brown Media

Earlier in January, a spokesperson for the GAO, which does non-partisan investigations for Congress, said the agency has agreed to conduct the study, which will start this month.

How Big Is The Problem?

“We worked with lawmakers to advocate for the GAO report,” and are pleased that it has been approved, said Rebecca Shelton, director of policy for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which is in part of the state’s mountainous Eastern Kentucky coalfield.

Source: Twitter/codyghosthost

These mines are a serious threat, “but the challenge is understanding how big of a problem is” across multiple states, she said. 

What Is Strip Mining?

The lawmakers, including Representatives Matt Cartwright, Don Beyer, Morgan McGarvey, Jared Huffman, Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Raul Grijalva, and Senator John Fetterman, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to count how many coal mines haven’t produced coal or made any progress in restoration, where they’re located, and their bonding status. 

Source: X/BubleQe

They also want to know if federal rules need updating. Strip mining in Central Appalachia involves cutting down forests and blasting mountains to access coal, causing environmental harm. Waste rock can end up in streams.

Restoring Idle Coal Mines

Restoration involves filling in mined areas, fixing unstable cliffs, planting trees, and cleaning contaminated water. 

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The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 says mined land should be restored to its original shape. Companies must also get bonds to pay for restoration if they go bankrupt.

Completely Out Of Control

A new report found that 27 of Kentucky’s abandoned mines haven’t produced coal in over five years, and some haven’t for more than a decade. Almost half are in Pike County, Eastern Kentucky. Although some mines may have done some restoration, the report couldn’t see much change in state records.

Source: AP Photo/Daniel R. Patmore

In 2022, it was reported that as the coal industry declined, coal companies got more violations at surface mines, but regulators didn’t force many to follow the rules. A state official said it was “completely out of control.”

We Are Reviewing It

The new report suggests Kentucky regulators reassess bond amounts for all abandoned mines to ensure they have enough money for restoration.

Source: X/KyChamber

John Mura, spokesman for the Kentucky Environment and Energy Cabinet, which regulates mining and reclamation in the state, said he could not comment on the report Thursday. “We just received the report (and) we’re reviewing it.”

Answers Are Needed Now

Shelton said answers are needed now. “When coal companies stop producing from mines, they are legally required to clean up their mess,” she said. “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.”

Source: REUTERS/Dane Rhys

She said that “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.”

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Mary Scrantin

Written by Mary Scrantin

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