Funding to Make Abandoned Coal Mines Safer Could Disappear Soon

A highwall near the Maxine mine. (Source: Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon eventually will determine how Drummond Co. must keep its Maxine Mine from polluting the Locust Fork with acid mine drainage. Regardless of the method used, the cost almost certainly will run into the millions of dollars.

The size and complexity of the more than six-decade-old site would make stopping or treating pollution “very, very challenging” regardless of the method used, according to Dustin Morin, the inspector for the Alabama Department of Labor’s Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program.

The program administers the federal AML program and addresses the most dangerous problems resulting from coal mining that occurred before passage of the U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

The state program receives annual grants from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The funds come from a severance tax on coal mined nationwide. Operators of surface mines, or strip mines, pay 28 cents per ton of coal. Operators of underground mines pay 12 cents per ton.

Unfortunately, Morin said, funds for the AML program total far less than needed to eliminate problems at the numerous abandoned sites in Alabama, and the current fee is set to expire in 2021.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper staff attorney Eva Dillard said, “One reason we wanted to find a way to bring this case is because we knew the AML program wouldn’t have the wherewithal to address Maxine Mine pollution, and without a private lawsuit, the site wouldn’t be cleaned up.”

State reports show Alabama has received $185 million in grant funding and has completed 661 projects on sites of abandoned coal mines.

Alabama is slated to receive only $49.4 million from 2018 to 2027 and would be eligible for about $91 million in additional funding if the fee collection is extended to 2036 with renewed funding. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has introduced legislation to continue the funding.

However, Alabama needs an estimated $452 million to handle remaining reclamation projects. The AML program backs the extension, but, “for obvious reasons, the coal industry is opposed; they see it as a tax,” Morin said.

Maxine Mine, unlike many other abandoned mines, is still owned by the company that performed the mining, through Drummond Co.’s merger with previous owner Alabama By-Products Corp.

“If there’s a safety feature associated with the AML, liability does rest with the landowner,” he said. “That’s part of the reason our program exists, to eliminate as many high priority safety features as we can. For example, if somebody drove a four-wheeler off a highwall on your property, there’s the potential for liability.”

Water pollution as a safety feature holds a low priority for AML funding, in comparison with mine highwalls that are considered more of an immediate danger to human health and safety, he said.

A 2017 report from the state program notes that hazards associated with more than 1,613 open mine shafts and portals have been eliminated, more than 81 miles of high priority dangerous highwalls are no longer a threat, and more than 2,279 acres of dangerous piles and embankments have been eliminated and the land reclaimed. Thus, “thousands of citizens have been protected from abandoned mine hazards,” the report stated.

The AML program prioritizes its projects in descending order of threat. First is an “extreme danger” to human health and safety, second is “a danger,” and last is “low” threat, or strictly environmental, Morin noted.

Maxine Mine falls under the low threat category.

“Historically, we have not been able to address (low) priority issues unless we can correlate them to a higher priority safety feature,” he said. “We’ve done acid mine drainage treatment, but we have to do it in association with reclamation of a higher priority feature.”

Morin said the AML state plan was amended in recent years so 30 percent of annual grant money could be set aside into a separate Acid Mine Drainage fund to address some priority three hazards, such as Maxine.

However, he said, Maxine Mine is so close to the river and has a high volume of water flowing through it that “it would make it a very, very expensive issue for us to address on our own,” he said. “If the grant funding is reauthorized and we could continue to set aside a percentage of money, it (may) be something we could contribute to addressing.”

He said a fix for the acid mine drainage could be either a passive or active system. With a passive option, the flow of water would be slowed and contained for a period of time, so it could have chemicals and materials mixed in to de-acidify it before releasing it into the river.

Installation of an active treatment system might be necessary, he said, because of the amount of runoff and proximity to the river. That might require maintenance and water treatment “in perpetuity,” Morin added.

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