Thursday, May 13, 2021

Guest Essay: Will Congress Help Coal Country?

By Joseph Pizarchik, Former Director, federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and Former Director, DEP Bureau of Mining and Reclamation

Congress has the opportunity to restore and revitalize large portions of Pennsylvania or to sentence it to permanent economic and environmental arrested development.  

Which option will you allow your Representative and Senators choose for you?  

This is my view of what Congress will do if they do not hear from you, your family, friends, and local businesses.

Abandoned Mine Land Fund

Coal has been mined in Pennsylvania for close to 300 years.  Most of that time the coal companies routinely destroyed land, polluted water, and created hazardous abandoned mine land (AML).  

The wanton destruction was reined in when the federal government established minimum standards to lessen future destruction.  

The federal government also established the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to provide grants to states and tribes to address dangerous AML.  The money came from a per-ton fee collected by the federal government and put into the AML Fund.  

Established in 1977, the fee will expire in September unless Congress acts.

Over the past 40 years $679,436,602 in AML grants have enabled Pennsylvania to eliminate 271 miles of highwalls (cliffs made by coal companies) and 1,880 underground mine openings; replace 2,500 polluted water supplies; reclaim 93,200 acres; and restore over 270 miles of polluted waterways.  

PADEP estimates that more than $5 billion of AML problems remain (actually more likely about $10 billion).  The dangerous AML and polluted waterways are continuous economic and environmental drags on two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

  The federal AML grants provide about $80 million annually for Pennsylvania’s economy, including thousands of jobs.  About $4 million is used each year to address more than 75 AML emergencies --[See video]. 

More than 270 miles of restored streams contribute about $28.6 million each year to local economies.  All of this will be lost if the AML Fund is allowed to expire.  

Even a reduction of the fee will cause a corresponding economic loss to Pennsylvania.

  Local economies have been burdened for decades by AML and polluted waterways.  These burdens have been compounded by accelerating loss of coal mining and power plant jobs.  

Coal has lost significant market share to low-cost gas and renewables.  

Coal’s share of the electricity market has dropped from 50 percent to about 20 percent.  

  Representatives Matt Cartwright and Glenn Thompson introduced the bipartisan HR 1734 to renew the AML Fund for 15 years and make other changes to the law, such as returning to the states and tribes grant funds withheld in accordance with the Budget Deficit Control Act.  

Representative Liz Cheney has introduced a bill to renew the AML Fund for 7 years but at an additional 40 percent reduction.   

Senator Bob Casey and other Democrats proposed renewal of the AML Fund for 15 years.

  AML Fund renewal is imperative.  It is likely Congress will renew the AML Fund.  It is uncertain for how long and whether the fee will be further reduced.  

Because of the recent coal miner and power plant job losses, the renewal should be at the original 1977 rate if not adjusted for inflation.  

Such action would offset some of the recent decline in AML grants.  

It is unlikely Congress will disburse the $135,466,207 of AML funds withheld from the states. 

  Restoring Jobs

Congress also has the opportunity to restore jobs by appropriating money to restore the annual AML grants.  

A $10 billion infusion into the AML Fund would create more jobs-- [See video] and increase the positive local economic impacts proven to result from AML reclamation and the restoration of streams.  

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan would commit $16 billion to plug abandoned oil and gas wells as well as reclaim AML.  

No member of the House or Senate from a coal state has advocated for such AML job creation.  

I urge the Biden Administration to create reclamation jobs for coal miners and to help rural Pennsylvania with a $10 billion appropriation to the AML Fund.


The bipartisan RECLAIM Act has again been introduced in the House.  First proposed over 5 years ago, this bill would accelerate the disbursement of $200 million per year for 5 years from the AML Fund.  

The money would be used for AML reclamation where it would create economic revitalization opportunities-- [See video]. 

Congress has insisted on a $200 million per year reduction in other federal spending for RECLAIM to be passed.  

It appears less likely that RECLAIM will pass this Congress because members of Congress who call themselves fiscal conservatives have resurrected their objections to deficit spending regardless of the economic benefits and jobs that have repeatedly been documented to result.


Pennsylvania is also home to 333 passive treatment systems (PTS), manmade acid neutralizer and toxic metal removal wetlands that treat acid mine drainage that flows from abandoned coal mines.  

Non-Government Organizations built 283 of these AML PTS.  More than $100 million has been invested in this clean water infrastructure.  

There is no dedicated source to provide jobs to operate, maintain, and rehabilitate (OM&R) these PTS-- [See video]. 

John Dawes, Executive Director, Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and I have been educating members of Congress of the need to preserve this clean water infrastructure.  It would also create dozens of permanent jobs-- [See video].

  A bipartisan group of Representatives have co-signed Representative Jamie Raskin’s letter that requests House leadership appropriate $12.7 million to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to fund OM&R for more than 532 AML PTS in 14 states.  

Of the 20 Representatives who co-signed the letter, two are from Pennsylvania: Representatives Connor Lamb, and Mike Doyle.  

There appears to be a good chance Congress will appropriate the needed funds.  

The chances would be greatly improved if all Pennsylvania Representatives would support preservation of this clean water infrastructure.

  Every Pennsylvania Representative and Senator should support renewal of the AML Fund, additional resources for AML reclamation, and OM&R funding because of the jobs, and environmental and economic benefits for Pennsylvania. 

If Congress fails to pass these important bills, I urge you to look at what’s in your water-- [See video].

More Information On AML Funding

The Pennsylvania AML Campaign, a coalition of conservation districts, watershed groups, and other local nonprofit groups also support reauthorization of the AML fee collection.

Visit the Our Work’s Not Done website supported by states involved in the federal abandoned mine reclamation program, including Pennsylvania.


Joseph Pizarchik is the former Director, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, United States Department of the Interior.  Prior to that he was the Director, Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and Mining Program counsel.

How Clean Is Your Stream?

DEP’s Interactive Report Viewer allows you to zoom in on your own stream or watershed to find out how clean your stream is or if it has impaired water quality using the latest information in the draft 2020 Water Quality Report.

Related Articles:

-- U.S. House Hearing On Reauthorizing Federal Abandoned Mine Lands Program: We Don’t Deserve To Wait Any Longer For Clean Streams, Diversified Economies

-- PA Members Of Congress Introduce Bipartisan Bills To Reclaim Abandoned Mine Lands, Create Jobs

[Posted: May 14, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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