Orange Water, Green Jobs


Paul Corbit Brown
For decades, acid mine drainage has been flowing from an abandoned mine beneath the remains of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia into Cabin Creek. Cabin Creek’s waters flow into the Kanawha River, then the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River, and then into the Gulf of Mexico.

In Brief

Thousands of miles of streams in central Appalachia remain polluted from coal mines abandoned decades ago. Researchers Evan Hansen, Anne Hereford, and Rory McIlmoil estimate the number of green jobs that can be created by reclaiming these abandoned mines and restoring the streams they pollute, thereby turning streams from liabilities into economic assets. However, unless changes are made in federal law, the primary funds for this effort, financed by a tax on every ton of coal mined, will sunset and the reclamation work and the jobs that depend on it will slow down or end before the work is completed.


Key Concepts

  • About 39,000 miles of streams in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are threatened or impaired; these streams are liabilities and can be turned into economic assets.

  • Coal mines abandoned before 1977 are major pollution sources. Over 8,500 abandoned coal mines have been inventoried in these four states, and over 2,500 have water-related problems. It will cost an estimated $2.5 billion to remediate all of these sites.

  • he major funding source available to address these problems, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, will not come close to generating sufficient funds before it sunsets in 2022. This fund is the ideal mechanism for addressing abandoned coal mines because it is financed by a tax on every ton of coal mined today.

  • An estimated 6,000–7,000 green jobs would be generated by remediating the abandoned mines that have water-related problems. Remediating all known abandoned coal mines in central Appalachia would generate about five times more.

  • Making targeted but important changes to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund would ensure that current coal mines continue to be taxed until reclamation of abandoned coal mines is complete, thereby generating thousands of green jobs and turning polluted streams into economic assets.

Like many waterways in the U.S. region of central Appalachia, the Cheat River once ran acidic—a legacy of drainage from the watershed’s countless abandoned coal mines and refuse piles. Just a couple of decades ago, the noxious waters stressed fish populations and polluted potable water supplies, and the unreclaimed mines posed health and safety threats. It was not uncommon for streams to glow bright orange or turn a turbid, milky gray as the metals in the polluted mine drainage mixed with the stream water. Stained orange rocks coated with “yellow boy” were a sure sign that the water, even if clear, carried acid mine drainage from abandoned mines toward Cheat Lake downstream.

Today, it is a different story. Cheat River and Cheat Lake host thriving fish stocks and have become meccas for anglers and boaters. The lake is the site of a popular bass-fishing tournament, and homes in the area house residents of the greater Morgantown, West Virginia, region as well as vacationers. Upstream, Cheat Canyon is renowned for white-water rafting and kayaking.

The Cheat River, in short, has been transformed in a few decades from a toxic liability to an economic, ecological, and aesthetic asset. The efforts to clean up the Cheat involved a variety of successful projects funded by the U.S. government via legislation, such as the 1977 Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund (generated by a tax on mined coal) and several other key statutes. The successes in mitigating decades of neglect and abuse in the Cheat River basin offer an example of the benefits of doing the same with the remainder of the 39,000 miles of impaired and threatened streams in central Appalachia.1 However, some enabling laws—which have helped to force coal to pay some of its true external costs—are set to expire before the huge job of regional mine reclamation is finished.

Mining Jobs—with a Twist

Central Appalachia—which we define for this article as the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia—is an energy-rich region, with large reserves of fossil fuels as well as substantial renewable resources. Coal mines, in particular, have provided significant employment and tax revenues for decades. In the central Appalachian region defined by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which includes portions of these four states, coal production last peaked in 1997 at 290 million tons. By 2008, production had declined to 235 million tons. Such a low level of production has not been experienced in the region since 1986. As production declined, employment dropped.2

Much of the current U.S. debate over green jobs centers on the development of renewable energy sources that also can provide employment and taxes. In central Appalachia, renewable energy jobs can benefit local communities by diversifying the region’s energy mix and providing new skilled jobs that are less subject to boom-and-bust cycles.

However, a second category of green jobs can also be developed in central Appalachia: those related to cleaning up rivers and streams that, decades after coal mining has ended, are still heavily polluted. Reclamation of old mining sites will create thousands of jobs for engineers who design these projects, contractors who build them, and water quality technicians who monitor them. Perhaps more importantly, when reclamation is complete, now-polluted streams will be turned from liabilities into economic assets that can then help diversify economies and encourage the introduction of basic services in local communities across the region.

The potential benefits are enormous, as the environment features largely in all aspects of Appalachian life. In central Appalachia’s numerous scenic headwater areas, trout fishermen wade waist high into the clean, clear rushing creeks and streams that bisect the region’s forested valleys and church-steepled towns. In many larger rivers and flood-control reservoirs, bass fishing is popular. In fact, dozens of tournaments are held each year in the four-state area, and these tournaments help draw visitors and tourist dollars to local communities. For example, 60 teams participated in the West Virginia Bass Federation Invitation Championship on the Monongahela River in Morgantown in 2009.3 The event was held in conjunction with the MountainFest motorcycle rally, which attracted an estimated 70,000 visitors, a major boost to local economies.4

Some of the region’s cities are located on the larger rivers. Charleston, West Virginia—the state capital—sits on the Kanawha River, a major tributary of the Ohio River, where barge operators navigate their loads of coal and other goods through locks and dams downstream to the Ohio River, on the way to the Mississippi.

Streams and rivers also supply water to public drinking-water systems and industrial facilities such as chemical and electric power plants. If this source water is polluted, drinking-water treatment costs can increase and industrial processes can be fouled. For example, high levels of total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River in 2008—from abandoned coal mines and other sources—not only caused the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to suggest that citizens drink bottled water if their tap water tasted bad, but also prompted a power plant to expend over $200,000 to treat water that would otherwise have damaged machinery.5, 6

While waterways are important community resources, polluted streams and rivers can be liabilities. Money is needed to restore them, and until they are restored, they are a drain on local economies, year after year. They hold back local development because people will generally avoid rivers that are visibly polluted, that smell, and that do not provide a suitable environment for recreation. Clean streams, in contrast, can draw in tourists who seek healthy fisheries or clean water for boating or wading. They can facilitate development by providing clean drinking water and can become unique community assets, attracting businesses interested in providing a high quality of life to employees.

Inventory of the Problem

Across central Appalachia, coal mining accounts for much of the region’s impaired and threatened streams. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in West Virginia coal mining is the most frequent probable source; in Kentucky, surface mining is the third most common probable source.1

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Mike Mancini for Solutions
The Cheat Lake, which was once polluted by drainage from mines and refuse piles, now hosts fishermen and boaters.

Of the 39,000 impaired-stream miles, almost 9,000 are polluted by sediment, which can be washed off old surface mines when it rains. High levels of sediment bury habitat for fish and for the insects they consume. Other significant types of pollution that are caused at least in part by coal mining include metals and acidity, which are responsible for about 8,000 and 3,000 miles of stream pollution, respectively. When certain metal levels and acidity are too high, fish and insects cannot sustain healthy populations. In fact, more than 8,000 miles of central Appalachian streams suffer from unhealthy biological communities.1

States inventory their abandoned mines in a federal database, and in central Appalachian states, of the 8,551 abandoned mines that have been inventoried, 2,577 have water-related problems.7 These water-related problems stretch from northern West Virginia through the mountains of Tennessee. However, the states use differing protocols for inventorying their sites, so it is hard to make an exact count of unreclaimed sites or to make valid comparisons between states. Some states only systematically inventory their highest-priority sites. Surprisingly, abandoned mines are still being discovered. In 2008, for example, West Virginia added 73 newly inventoried abandoned mines to the database.8

The investment required to remediate these abandoned mines is significant. Many polluting mines predate the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which requires that coal mines be reclaimed and not cause water pollution for an indefinite period of time. Millions of dollars per year are provided to states to reclaim these abandoned mines via provisions in Title IV of the act.9 State agencies estimate that $511 million will be required to finish addressing the water-related problems, and about $2.5 billion will be required to address all problems at all abandoned mines in central Appalachia.7 However, these estimates are likely significant underestimates. Projects considered completed by state agencies have not necessarily addressed water quality discharges to the extent that surface water quality standards are met. And this database is likely incomplete. Still, these estimates provide an initial approximation of the scale of work that remains to remove the hazards and remediate the pollution from coal mines abandoned before 1977.

Funding Reclamation

In 1977, remnants of the past few decades of coal mining scarred the landscape. With no federal regulation in place at the time, the coal companies picked up and moved on after removing the coal, often leaving behind large refuse piles and flooded underground mine pools. Open portals, dangerous highwalls (cliffs created by surface mining), and rusting machinery can still be found across the area, reminders of a coal mining era without federal regulation. The pollution draining from these abandoned coal mines continues to this day.

Today, four major government programs help pay to reclaim these abandoned mines: the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, Watershed Cooperative Agreement Program grants, Clean Water Act Section 319 grants, and Public Law 566. These programs stand as examples of what can be done, but they are also underfunded, and the most important program is in danger of expiring without renewal.

The Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, the most significant source of funds for fixing abandoned mines, is generated by a federal tax on every ton of mined coal. These funds are allocated to environmental agencies, which spend the money on reclamation projects. This program rightfully generates its funding from the coal industry, which abandoned the coal mines and created the pollution sources in the first place.

Coal is cheap. At only a few cents per kilowatt-hour, it usually costs less than natural gas and nuclear power, its chief competitors. Coal's low nominal price and its abundance are the main reasons it is so heavily used. In the United States, for instance, coal accounts for 45 percent of all electricity generation, more than nuclear and natural gas combined.

Formulas are used to divide the funds among the states. Distributions changed when the Fund was reauthorized in 2006, dramatically increasing the amount of money sent back to states like those in central Appalachia that have a continuing legacy of unreclaimed abandoned mines. However, the program is to be shut down in 2022.

In 2009, $298 million was distributed from the Fund to states and tribes, increasing to $369 million in 2010. A significant portion of these funds flows to central Appalachian states: $80 million in 2009 and $100 million in 2010.10, 11 The total distributions through the end of the program cannot be calculated with precision yet. But according to one estimate, West Virginia would receive the largest distribution of the four central Appalachian states ($875 million). The four central Appalachian states would receive $1.5 billion in total through 2022.12 However, this funding is insufficient against the $2.5 billion required, at minimum, to complete the job.

President Obama’s 2010 budget proposal included a change that would stop sending Fund distributions to states that have already cleaned up all of their abandoned mines.13 Seven states and tribes would currently fall into this category: Louisiana, Montana, Texas, Wyoming, the Crow Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, and the Navajo Nation. It is not clear whether this proposal, if adopted, would return additional funds to central Appalachian states.

One challenge in using the Fund for water remediation stems from its system that prioritizes human health and safety projects over those that reduce pollution. While states can set aside a portion of their funds to remediate water quality problems at abandoned mines, they are not setting aside enough to fully address pollution problems now and in the future.

The Fund also supports the Watershed Cooperative Agreement Program, which has provided $3.5 million for abandoned coal mine remediation projects in central Appalachian states since 1999.14 These grants specifically focus on water-related problems and provide funding directly to watershed associations, thus raising their capacity and effectiveness.

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Downstream Strategies
Impaired and threatened streams in central Appalachia.

Another funding stream is available through the federal Clean Water Act. Because abandoned mine discharges are considered to be nonpoint sources of pollution, Section 319 grants can be used to help finance remediation projects. These grants are provided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to state environmental agencies and are sometimes passed through to watershed associations.

Finally, although rarely used for polluted mine drainage remediation at abandoned mines, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is funding such efforts in the Deckers Creek watershed in north-central West Virginia through a Public Law 566 watershed restoration project. The reclamation work is specifically focused on water quality improvements.

Using one or more of these funding sources, numerous successful projects have been implemented in central Appalachia. The Cheat River watershed, mentioned earlier, is a good example because the Cheat and many of its tributaries were significantly polluted from decades-old coal mines. The improvements would not have been possible without projects such as the one on the North Fork of Greens Run, which addressed polluted water flowing from an abandoned mine portal. The project included a limestone leach bed and an open limestone channel, which were specifically engineered for the water chemistry and flow at the site. The project resulted in an 80 percent reduction of acidity.15

Despite the successes on the North Fork of Greens Run, on other tributaries to the Cheat, and in other watersheds across the region, thousands of sites still pollute central Appalachian streams. If funding based on taxing current coal mines is allowed to expire in 2022, the funding will not come close to the amount needed to reclaim all abandoned mines, and the remaining sites will remain unreclaimed or will have to be funded by society at large, rather than by the industry that created the pollution problems in the first place.

Counting the Benefits

When President Obama speaks of creating green jobs, there could be no better way to do so than to clean up abandoned coal mines in Appalachia. In fact, recent research has quantified the jobs and local economic benefits generated by remediating polluted coal mine drainage in the West Branch Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania. The results from this project help in estimating the number of green jobs that can be created by remediating abandoned mines across central Appalachia. According to a report on the project authored by one of us and several colleagues:

The most obvious benefit of [abandoned mine drainage] remediation to the local community is that funds are pumped into the local economy to design, build, and maintain treatment systems. Many goods and services are provided by local businesses, jobs are created, and these dollars circulate through the economy as workers spend their paychecks on other local goods and services. A restoration economy with “green-collar” jobs is then created in which people work toward environmental restoration that supports local communities over the long term.16

The West Branch Susquehanna report calculates the number of jobs created by a massive investment in abandoned mine drainage remediation: one-time capital expenditures of between $110 million and $453 million and operations and maintenance expenditures of about $16 million per year. According to the analysis, such an investment would create between 1,531 and 5,892 jobs to build the treatment systems and 185 or more jobs each year to operate and maintain the systems.16 Put another way, about 13 well-paying jobs would be created for every million dollars in capital investment and about 12 jobs for every million dollars spent on operations and maintenance. Translating these averages to central Appalachia, if $511 million is required to remediate water-related abandoned mines across the region, this would result in approximately 6,000–7,000 jobs. The number of jobs created at all abandoned mines, whether or not they cause water problems, would be about five times greater. And, as mentioned above, these estimated funding requirements—and therefore the estimated number of green jobs—are likely underestimates.

In addition to the jobs generated by designing, building, and maintaining the treatment systems, the resulting clean streams would help diversify local economies, leading to even more jobs and benefits for local communities. Businesses would be attracted to communities that can provide a high quality of life for employees or to rivers that can provide clean water for drinking and for industrial processes. Individuals seeking homes close to outdoor amenities would find communities with clean water attractive. Fishing and boating opportunities would improve.

In addition, a new constituency would be created that depends on the fundamental link between jobs and clean water. A private sector that uses and depends on a clean water supply can be a political force to ensure that it remains clean.

Rivers are a focal point of economic development in several communities in central Appalachia. Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, made a deliberate effort to center its growth around the local waterway, making it an emblem of the community’s spirit and vitality. In Fayetteville, West Virginia, the river is a natural draw for recreational boaters, with their kayaks, canoes, and rafts.

Chattanooga carried out a major revitalization effort of the downtown area centered around the Tennessee River. Once declared the most polluted city in the country,17 Chattanooga’s revitalization efforts formally began in 1984 with a movement known as Vision 2000. More than 1,700 community members came together to set goals and priorities for community improvement, including cleaning up the river.18 The 1992 opening of the Tennessee Aquarium, then the world’s largest freshwater facility, is an enduring icon of the vision’s success. The aquarium features exhibits based on local river and forest ecosystems, and the Tennessee River is visible through its windows. Then, in 1993, the once-condemned Walnut Street bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic; today it connects downtown to the North Shore, including a popular riverside park with a carousel and rock-climbing wall, shops, condominiums, and restaurants. Where pollution once discouraged water contact, piers along an expanding Riverwalk now encourage fishing, thanks in part to the replacement of heavy industry with tourist attractions. Following up on these successes of Vision 2000, in 2003, the Outdoor Chattanooga initiative was born, explicitly “promoting outdoor recreation as a signature lifestyle … to increase tourism, bring new residents to the community, protect our natural resources, and enhance the health and well-being of citizens and visitors alike.”19

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Downstream Strategies
Abandoned mine lands in central Appalachia (excluding Kentucky).

Fayetteville is another Appalachian community that promotes its water-focused recreational opportunities. The town is located just west of the New River Gorge Bridge, where the annual Bridge Day festival draws hundreds of skydivers, who land in the river 876 feet below, and up to 150,000 spectators each year. While this is the most extreme sport in the area, the New River is also the state’s most popular commercial white-water rafting river and a popular destination for flat-water boating, bird-watching, trout and bass fishing, and other water-focused activities. Developing the region’s natural assets has proven to be a much more effective regeneration strategy than struggling to attract outside businesses to the region. Central Appalachia’s water resources comprise an asset that, if restored and protected, could help strengthen and diversify local economies.

Chattanooga and Fayetteville demonstrate how cities and towns in central Appalachia can embrace their streams and rivers and turn them into economic engines.

Abandoned in Midstream?

Despite the substantial progress made so far, thousands of abandoned mines remain unaddressed in central Appalachia. Finishing the job—thereby helping to create thousands of green jobs and to diversify local economies and boost their growth—will require several specific actions.

Most importantly, adjustments must be made to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, the most important source of revenue for remediating coal mines abandoned before 1977. This is the most logical funding stream for addressing this legacy issue because it is supported by a per-ton tax on coal mined in the present. The Fund should have the explicit goal of remediating every abandoned mine, including those with water-related problems, and should further aim to meet water quality standards in now-polluted streams.

The first adjustment necessary to meet these goals is to remove the Fund’s sunset provision. According to its 2006 reauthorization, the Fund will sunset in 2022; however, the years that remain will not allow for sufficient funding to address all remaining abandoned mines. Congress should either remove the sunset provision or tie the sunset date to finishing the job.

Second, the law currently classifies abandoned mines that pollute streams as Priority 3 sites, and it is difficult for state agencies to reclaim these sites ahead of Priority 1 and 2 sites—those that present threats to human health and safety. States will be better able to fully address polluted mine drainage, and will be able to more efficiently allocate their funds, if this priority system is relaxed.

Third, President Obama’s recent budget proposals included a change that would stop sending Fund distributions to states that have already cleaned up all of their abandoned mines. This change should be adopted and funds should be reallocated to states such as those in central Appalachia with backlogs of unreclaimed mines.

At the state level, the active involvement and leadership of watershed associations has been important in focusing agency efforts, generating local community support, and cost-effectively designing, building, and maintaining treatment systems. While many watershed associations are built upon volunteer labor, the largest and most effective organizations have paid staff and need funding to continue their programs. Significant funding for these organizations would allow them to continue or even expand their work in remediating abandoned coal mines. However, in West Virginia, grants of only up to $5,000 are awarded by the state government to watershed associations each year. In Kentucky, the Kentucky River Authority distributes lock and dam fees to projects throughout the basin, but this only totals approximately $20,000 annually.20 In Tennessee, there is no state money designated for supporting watershed associations at all. A model for central Appalachian states to consider is the Watershed Coordinator Grant Program in Ohio, which funds watershed coordinator salaries.

At the local level, river-focused development has been successfully pursued in numerous cities and towns across the country. Chattanooga and Fayetteville are two Appalachian examples where rivers generate continuing local benefits. Integrating local rivers and streams into a community’s development plans can create new types of employment that can help diversify the local economy. With the local economy explicitly linked with protection of water quality, new constituencies will have interests that align clean water and economic development.