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Kentucky eligible for nearly $75 million to clean up abandoned historic mines

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.
Brittany Patterson
Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Historic abandoned mines litter the Appalachian landscape: unreclaimed high walls scar foothills and threaten landslides, toxic mine drainage leaches into local waterways and some underground mine shafts even catch fire and burn for years at a time. 

Now, Kentucky is eligible for an unprecedented investment in reclaiming and restoring those abandoned mine lands. 

With the passage of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, U.S. communities will receive $11.3 billion over the next 15 years for reclamation and restoration of historic mines.  

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to helping working families, often in rural and Tribal communities, who face hazardous pollution, toxic water levels, and land subsidence both during mining and long after coal companies have moved on,” said Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Monday that 22 states and the Navajo Nation will receive hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone. 

Kentucky is eligible to receive nearly $75 million dollars for projects that will help improve regional water quality, close dangerous mine shafts and reclaim unstable slopes. 

The state has at least 34,000 acres of these historic mines and it could cost at least $1.1 billion to clean them up, according to a 2021 report from the Ohio River Valley Institute.

Last year the state received only $9 million through the program, or less than 1% of the estimated costs to clean up the known abandoned mine lands. 

Advocates for coal communities around Appalachia are applauding the historic investment as a means to improve the environment while boosting local economies.  

“We would like to see it create more jobs in reclamation, those are the sorts of jobs that coal miners who may be out of work can pick up,” said Erin Savage, senior program manager for Appalachian Voices, a regional energy non-profit. “Coal miners are very experienced in reclamation on modern mines and those are skills that transfer.”

Savage said it’s likely Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet will receive the full amount this year, which it will then use to choose projects for reclamation. 

The cabinet and the Governor's Office for Communication did not respond to a request for comment, though the governor did acknowledge the funding will create jobs in a press conference on Monday.  

“We have shown and continue to show great ingenuity and creativity in creating the jobs of the future – and this funding will create the jobs to reclaim these abandoned mine lands, making them safe and usable,” said Gov. Andy Beshear. 

Even with the additional funding to clean up mine lands, there are many, many abandoned mines that are not covered under the law.

Approximately 200,000 acres of un-reclaimed or partially reclaimed mines are not included in the funding, according to a 2021 study from Appalachian Voices

That’s because Abandoned Mine Lands funding only applies to mines that produced coal prior to the 1977 adoption of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). It doesn’t include, for example, any mines that Black Jewel has abandoned since it declared Bankruptcy in 2019.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.