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Congress scrutinizes federal programs to reclaim abandoned mines

Abandoned mines are dangerous environmental and safety hazards for communities.
Yankee Artillerist
Flickr Creative Commons
Abandoned mines are dangerous environmental and safety hazards for communities.

News brief: 

Committees in the U.S. House and Senate recently discussed abandoned mine policies, with some lawmakers calling for faster rollouts of federal money for cleanups.

Abandoned mines for both coal and hardrock can cause major environmental damage. They often pollute groundwater, streams, air and soil, and hundreds of thousands of sites stillexist on public lands. Cleaning up these hazards will cost billions, but it will also provide jobs in local communities.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., said during testimony that the issue of abandoned mines – and progress toward fixing it – remains largely unknown.

“I think part of our job is to make sure more Americans are aware of these consequences of decades of it – whether it's fires or acid drainage – that has been harming our environment,” he said.

Up to $725 million in federal funds will be available for states and communities reclaiming historic coal mine lands, and about $10 million has already been allocated to Colorado this year.

But much of the funding for these cleanups is only available via grants. Some politicians feel that the guidelines to apply for this money come with too many strings attached, such as prioritizing projects that meet environmental justice goals.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said during testimony that bureaucratic red tape results in unnecessary delays for important projects.

“The Abandoned Mine Land program is critical to the public safety and environmental quality of communities all across America,” he said. “The Biden Administration shouldn't twist it into another bureaucratic boondoggle in the name of climate change. The department needs to get out of the way and let states get busy reclaiming abandoned sites.”

During both committee hearings, lawmakers said that they’ll work with the Interior Department to expedite funding requests and get more projects moving.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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