Town hall showcases opportunities for reclaimed mine land

blue acre aquaponics screencap
A screencapture from the RECLAIM Town Hall shows Blue Acre Appalachian Aquaponics, an aquaponics facility built on reclaimed mine land in Kermit, West Virginia.

Failure isn’t an option when it comes to keeping funding for abandoned mine land reclamation work, at least according to one Pennsylvania congressman.

“To me it’s unthinkable that we don’t renew the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Abandoned Mine Land trust Fund,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, during a virtual town hall April 28.

Support for the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund is set to expire in September, unless Congress votes to renew it. On top of leaving environmental and public safety hazards untouched, losing that funding would amount to enormous lost economic opportunity, Cartwright said.

Cartwright, D-Moosic, introduced legislation in March to extend support for the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund for another 15 years. He also introduced the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More, or RECLAIM, Act.

This bill would release about $1 billion already collected by the Abandoned Mine Land fund to provide support for economic revitalization and development in economically distressed mining communities through reclamation efforts. Cartwright discussed the need for both pieces of legislation during the town hall.

RECLAIM opportunities

The RECLAIM Act would be a new program that would get more mine land reclaimed faster, using money that is already there, Cartwright said. 

“There’s also no reason that former coal communities should have to wait decades to have cleaner water and more job opportunities in their areas,” he said. “That’s where the RECLAIM Act comes in.”

With the improved land and water could come economic development in former coal towns. Cartwright said a bustling retail shopping center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was built on reclaimed mine land, as was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.

Another possibility could be something like Blue Acre Appalachian Aquaponics, an aquaponics facility built atop reclaimed mine land in Kermit, West Virginia. Fritz Boettner, program director, food system development, for West Virginia University’s Center for Resilient Communities, presented information on the project during the town hall.

Blue Acre Appalachian Aquaponics was funded in 2016 by the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The cost was about $3.5 million to build, equip and operate the Mingo County aquaponics facility, which now employs three full-time employees and two part-time employees, Boettner said.

The 10,000 square-foot facility has been operating for about eight months and sells lettuce, greens and tilapia to schools, grocery stores and local residents that walk in, he said. The products are also distributed through a farm collective. It’s expected to make $250,000 in revenue this year.

“It’s a way to use these funds to invest in a small economic project in a fairly isolated place in West Virginia and have large dividends both locally but also regionally developing the local food economic system,” Boettner said.

AML impact

The Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund was established in 1977 by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It’s funded by a fee collected on all coal produced in the U.S. Grants are distributed annually to coal-producing states and tribal programs according to a congressionally mandated formula.

Federal Abandoned Mine Land funding has closed more than 45,000 mine shafts and openings, eliminated 990 miles of highwalls and restored more than 52,000 acres of streams and land. However, there is still about $10 billion in work left to be done nationwide, according to the Department of the Interior. Some groups estimate the cost and number of mine land that needs to be reclaimed is much higher than that.

Cartwright understands this issue better than most. His district includes much of northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal country, where many towns were built around the mines.

“People could access mines from their basements where I live,” he said. “They could go to work by going down the cellar into the mine… The mines are all around populated areas in northeast Pennsylvania.”

Both bills have bipartisan support, and Cartwright is confident they would make it through the House. He wasn’t as sure about the Senate, but he said he was glad to count West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, among the bills’ supporters.

“The best way to train your energy is to call your friends who have senators who are Republican and not from coal country,” he said, during the town hall. “Call them, write to them, email them. Ramp up their awareness that this matters to people and it matters to people all over the country.”


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