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Zombie mines continue to pose environmental, health threats to Appalachia

Nadia Ramlagan

West Virginia and other Appalachian states are littered with hundreds of “zombie mines,” abandoned mines neither producing coal nor undergoing reclamation.

Research shows idle mines can trigger landslides, pollute groundwater and cause economic harm to communities.

Erin Savage, coal impacts program director for the group Appalachian Voices, said there is an urgent need to update regulations on zombie mines, especially since the Biden administration’s recently announced federal actions to clean up abandoned mines do not apply to zombie mines. She noted part of the problem is a lack of data around what mines are producing coal, are set to be reclaimed, or have been sitting vacant for decades.

She has been working on a project that aims to better identify zombie mines in the region.

“One way we’re trying to go about doing that is using remote sensing,” Savage explained. “What we’re doing is using algorithms to analyze images of the surfaces of these mines and look for barren earth.”

Research shows coal companies’ habit of transferring permits and declaring bankruptcy often delays reclamation and evades responsibility for cleanup. More than 50 coal companies declared bankruptcy between 2010 and 2019, and 22 additional coal companies declared bankruptcy in 2020 alone.

Congressional lawmakers have introduced three bills to ensure coal companies pay for the cost of mine cleanup. Savage explains the first bill would eliminate “self-bonding,” essentially a corporate promise companies make to do mine cleanup.

The second would make sure that bond amounts are set at an adequate level, so that there’s actually enough money available for the cost — true cost — of reclamation,” Savage outlined. “And the third would set better, enforceable standards about how quickly reclamation needs to happen.”

Reclaiming zombie mines could also bring economic opportunities to a region plagued by unemployment. A 2021 analysis by Appalachian Voices found reclamation of modern mines in West Virginia and six other states could create up to 45,000 jobs.