Community Group Lawsuit Takes on Water Pollution from Unreclaimed Coal Mines

South of Charleston, West Virginia, and nestled against the Kanawha State Forest and many local communities, a collection of coal mines tell the story of the many mistakes and misjudgments by mine operators and government regulators that have led to our current coal mine reclamation crisis. 

Mine reclamation is the process of restoring a mined site to as close to the pre-mining condition as possible, including regrading, revegetating, and addressing any ongoing water pollution issues. While reclamation is required by law, thousands of mines sit unreclaimed across the country. Every month, several unreclaimed mines operated by Keystone West Virginia generate new harm to the environment as they release untreated and unpermitted water pollution. A new lawsuit brought by Sierra Club, the Kanawha Forest Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Appalachian Voices seeks to compel the mines’ operator to comply with the Clean Water Act at the unreclaimed coal mines while bringing attention to the longstanding, unresolved issues that have created this catastrophe. 

The Keystone mines began racking up violations almost immediately after they began operating in the early 2000s. About a decade after they opened, the mines were sold to a new company gobbling up coal mines across the region. Not to be outdone by its predecessor, the new operator, Revelation Energy, also accumulated an impressive list of violations at the mines, many involving untreated water pollution and uncontrolled erosion. Just a few years later, Revelation was in bankruptcy along with its affiliate Blackjewel LLC, leaving bounced paychecks, shuttered mines, blockaded coal trains, and dozens of mine abandonments in its wake.

When Revelation liquidated, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection initially assumed responsibility to clean up the mines, but has since tried to shift responsibility back to the original operator, breaking long standing rules in the process. As regulators attempt to free themselves of the cost of the cleanup, no one is monitoring or reporting the ongoing pollution at the unreclaimed mines.

That the nearby communities must contend with this pollution and the ever-present threat of landslides and blow-outs is the primary tragedy of this story and what Sierra Club’s lawsuit immediately addresses. But that tragedy is compounded by all of the opportunities regulators missed to rein in irresponsible operators and ensure the law was fully enforced and reclamation completed. 

Those failures are not unique to these mines, and by exploring them we can better understand how regulators allowed the present national crisis–thousands of unreclaimed coal mines and inadequate funds to complete the work–to develop, and what options remain available to address the problem.

Failure #1: State regulators didn’t secure adequate bonds

When Congress passed the Surface Mining Act (SMCRA) in 1977, legislators viewed effective reclamation bonding as the foundation of the entire regulatory program. Just as liability car insurance ensures that the victim of an accident can recover from the responsible party, reclamation bonds were meant to ensure that regulators could collect funds in the event a mine operator failed to complete reclamation. 

But coal-friendly regulators lowballed bonding estimates and allowed industry-friendly bonding schemes. While the bonds were issued at a time when it was difficult to imagine a struggling coal industry, it’s precisely when an industry is thriving that it is most important to implement effective bonding requirements. The lack of adequate bonding at the mines is likely the single factor most responsible for the current dismal situation.

Failure #2: Mining regulators didn’t regulate the mines

Time after time, mine regulators declined to effectively enforce laws put in place to mitigate the public health and environmental impacts of coal mining, preferring to assist mine operators at the expense of the local communities instead. While the dirty business of coal mining means mines accumulate violations often, the Keystone mines were among the worst of the worst and stood out for the severity and frequency of their violations. 

How can state regulators find a solution? 

Regulators must enforce the law and require companies to complete the reclamation, water monitoring, and water treatment that their permits legally require them to do. No one should get a free pass to pollute streams just because a mine is in reclamation. 

And once it's clear that a mine operator lacks the ability or the resources to complete the reclamation or water treatment, the regulator must assume that responsibility–as the law requires. That’s exactly what should have happened with these Keystone sites. Although it’s clear West Virginia will eventually exhaust its reclamation bond pool before all the work is done, that pool has hundreds of millions of dollars in it right now.

Failing to act today means communities will continue to shoulder the burden of the mining industry by living with ongoing pollution and the threat of landslides, flooding, and other calamities.

The groups bringing the lawsuit against Keystone West Virginia are represented by attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates.


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