Inside Appalachia’s Zombie Mine Crisis

In the heart of coal country, a crisis is brewing underground. Across states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the collapse of the coal industry has left behind a growing number of “zombie” strip mines – sites that are technically still active but have not produced coal in years.

Financial Ruin Leaves Mines Abandoned and Unreclaimed

A new report from the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC) reveals the scale of this mounting issue. Their research shows almost 40% of active coal strip mines in Kentucky have been functionally abandoned, with no coal production for over 5 or even 10 years in some cases. Yet these dead mines continue scarring the land, leaving unstable mountains and contaminated water sources.  

For mining towns, zombie mines create a perilous environment. Without active reclamation, debris from strip mining can send boulders into homes or pollute drinking water. Highwalls – steep cliffs created from blasting away mountains – dot the landscape, endangering hikers and wildlife. The ACLC report uncovered 15 miles worth of these hazardous cliffs left completely unreclaimed.

Behind this neglect lies an industry in financial ruin. As coal loses out economically to natural gas and renewables, most major operators have filed for bankruptcy over the past decade. And when the paychecks stop coming in, so does the impetus to clean up shop. Legally, coal companies must secure bonds to cover reclamation costs in case of bankruptcy. But the industry is self-regulated through these pooled bond funds, which are now running on empty.  

The True Scope of Environmental Damage Remains Unclear

In other words, there is no longer money set aside to fix the mess being left behind. Without reclamation, zombie mines can sit unchanged for years, slowly leaking toxins.  

The scale of this issue remains unknown, but impacts appear widespread in Appalachia’s coal communities. The ACLC uncovered zombie mines scarring 19 square miles of Kentucky land alone. And contests between the industry and environmental groups reveal similar sites cropping up in West Virginia and Virginia.

Lawmakers Push for New Federal Investigation

Lawmakers have taken notice. In October 2022, eight Congressional members called for a federal investigation into zombie mines and the threats they pose. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has since agreed to pursue a study, starting in March 2023. The investigation will aim to quantify the number, location and size of functionally abandoned mines across multiple states.  

The GAO’s findings may push much-needed updates to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Under current law, progress on reclamation is still tied to active coal production at a site. Mines can thus drag out unfinished reclamation for years with little consequence, as long as they maintain an ‘active’ status. Tighter regulations could force more accountability.

But reform faces substantial roadblocks. Despite recent transition plans put forth by the Biden Administration, coal still holds enormous sway in Appalachian politics. Attempts to accelerate reclamation frequently stall out against assertions about protecting local jobs and economies.  

The Burden Falls on Mining Communities

The result leaves mining communities shouldering long-term impacts with little support. In areas where coal grew synonymous with livelihood, zombie mines remain gaping wounds – both environmentally and economically. Their scars will linger for decades without intervention, serving as reminders of an industry that dug riches out of the land then left residents to bear the costs.  

For Appalachia, transition remains a process filled with pitfalls. But if change ever hopes to take root, the first step will be confronting those areas where extraction has hollowed out the land and then walked away. A mounting number of dead mines stand as a testament that this reckoning remains unfinished. Only time will tell if lawmakers can finally force coal to clean up its mess.