Report: $126M price tag for cleaning up Tennessee’s abandoned coal fields

Tennessee coal fields

Tennessee has more than 14,000 acres of abandoned coal fields, but the cost of remediation —such as replanting trees and improving water quality — far outweigh the federal funding available to the state, a new report shows. 

The report by the Ohio River Valley Institute, a think tank dedicated to examining Appalachia, concluded that the total cost of reclaiming old coal mines across the country is $26 billion. The federal government’s budget: $11 billion.

The vast majority of the nation’s abandoned coal mines lie in the seven Appalachia states of Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

The former coal mines can cause a host of environmental problems, including water pollution and acid mine drainage, and present physical dangers to people in nearby communities from rockslides and flooding. 

More than 75,000 Tennesseans live within a mile of an abandoned mine, in an area that encompasses two dozen counties in east Tennessee, according to the report. 

Most of the abandoned coal mines, defined by the federal government as ceasing operations before 1977, were strip mines in Tennessee, said Landon Medley, who has advocated against mining for decades as a member of the Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment, or SOCM. 

But deep mines, drilled underground in the early decades of the 20th century, also pocket Tennessee’s coal fields, he said. 

“No one has even counted those,” he said. 

Tennessee receives roughly $3 million a year from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining used to clean up sites, according to the Department of Environment and Conservation. 

It would take more than $126 million to clean up the known sites, the report estimated.

The federal funding for clean up comes through the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from coal companies, who pay a fee based on the amount of coal they produce. 

The federal government distributes funding to states based on the fees generated in each state. 

In Tennessee, the declining coal industry has meant fewer coal company fees, and fewer federal clean up dollars. 

During Fiscal Year 2018, just five mines — two surface mines and three are underground —produced coal in Tennessee.