Mining has been a significant undertaking in this region for many years due to the abundance of coal that can be found beneath the surface. Ongoing mining still occurs today and is well-regulated, however many operations were not properly reclaimed and are now considered to be abandoned. Reclamation is necessary to reduce acidic pollution and to ensure that land can be productive again for agriculture and other uses.
Coal has been mined in the United States since the 1740′s, but surface mining did not become widespread until the 1930′s. At the end of the decade, states began to enact the first laws regulating the coal mining industry: West Virginia in 1939, Indiana in 1941, Illinois in 1943, and Pennsylvania in 1945. After World War II, states continued to enact and expand regulatory programs, some of which required mining permits or the posting of bonds to ensure that the land could be reclaimed after mining was complete. However, these laws had varying requirements, and some mining companies opted to relocate to states where regulations were less strict.
At the same time, surface mining became increasingly common: in 1963 just 33% of American coal came from surface mines. By 1973 that figure reached 60%. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) grew out of a concern about the environmental effects of strip mining. It is now the primary federal law that regulates the effects of coal mining in the United States. SMCRA created two programs: one for regulating active mines and a second for reclaiming abandoned mine lands.
SMCRA created the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mines. The fund is financed by a tax of 31.5 cents per ton for surface mined coal, 15 cents per ton for coal mined underground, and 10 cents per ton for lignite (brown coal). 80% of AML fees are distributed to states with an approved program to fund reclamation activities.
Abandoned Mine Lands may be found on properties mined before full enactment of SMCRA and for newer sites affected by bond forfeiture. Abandoned sites may contain a variety of hazards including:
Most surface water quality concerns associated with Abandoned Mine Land sites revolve around acid mine drainage and erosion/sedimentation.
Acid mine drainage refers to the yellowish-orange water that flows out of old mines. This toxic discharge results from a chemical reaction that occurs when metal sulfides, such as iron pyrite (commonly known as ‘fool’s gold’), are exposed to air and water. The most common solution formed is sulfuric acid, which dissolves other metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead. It then carries them into streams or groundwater. The acid discharges can have a pH level comparable to battery acid, which is enough to harm vegetation, fish, and other aquatic organisms.
Abandoned mine lands are often susceptible to erosion and sedimentation because of waste rock piles, roads, leach pads, and other unvegetated areas. Of particular concern are ‘tailings’ (debris leftover after separation of valuable components is complete), which expose mounds of fine-grained sediment to the elements. As soil particles are washed into a stream, sedimentation occurs as they drop to the bottom and cover rocks and vegetation. Sediment changes the light, temperature, and oxygen conditions of a waterway and can bury fish eggs or young, smother vegetation, impair the growth of other aquatic organisms, and lead to greater risks of flooding.
If you have more questions about abandoned mine lands, please contact the DNR Division of Reclamation