People in southwestern Virginia have been working to move beyond the coal economy that’s dominated the region for a hundred years. They’re building new businesses, literally atop the old, by repurposing abandoned coal mines. One limit to that effort has been money. That is, until last week, when Congress voted to give Virginia $10 million toward those efforts. Robbie Harris reports.
Coal companies pay about 15 cents for every ton of coal they extract, and that money goes into a cleanup fund for mines that were long ago abandoned.
But it’s been slow process; one that Congress has considered changing. In the meantime, lawmakers have been doling out federal money directly to some coal states to the ball rolling.
This year, Congressman Morgan Griffith made sure Virginia was included. He says, “It’s the right thing because they’ve been giving the money to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky for the last couple of years and while initially we didn’t have the layoffs that those states had, we got hit pretty hard in 2015 and so Virginia needs that help.”
Thom Kay, with the environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices, credits Griffith with getting $10 million for Virginia into last week’s budget resolution.
Kay says that help is not only about reclaiming abandoned mine lands, it’s also about making sure that what replaces them revitalizes and diversifies local economies where coal was once king.
“Best case scenario in our view is cleaning up the mine in a way that can promote projects in the area, ideally in a way that can have long term impacts above and beyond just mine clean up,” Kay explains.
“Projects like parks and tourism, solar energy, farming, ways to bring long term jobs to the region.”
Last year, Appalachian Voices partnered with mining engineer, Gerald Collins, to take stock of all the abandoned mines in the region.
“What my company has done is look at those mines from Lee County all the way to Tazwell, to the West Virginia border,” Collins says. “The 50,000-odd acres spread out over two or three hundred different sites, and trying to come up with a list.”
That list identified 14 projects that could be catalysts for a new economy in coal country. It outlines clean up costs for each, and estimates economic returns they could bring.
Economic Development specialist Adam Wells is carefully walking along a trail overlooking a train track and a scramble rusting heavy equipment below.
As we walk, he details a plan for the city of Norton. “So the idea for the river walk for Norton, it would start at the elementary school which you can see here in the distance. We’ll follow this right of way here…
Then we’ll go to what’s called the Tippal Hill site, an 11 acre former coal processing facility.”
Along the way we pass a trickle of that tell tale orange-colored residue from acid mine drainage. The Norton river walk project would clean this up and add walking trails, landscaping, a pedestrian bridge, rest rooms and signage.
The plan already has a lot of buy-in from local citizens and officials. It‘s part of a plan to capitalize on this area’s natural beauty to attract ecotourism.
But, Wells points out, it’s important to heed the lessons of the coal economy that came before this: never put all your economic eggs in one basket.
“No one thing is going to replace the coal industry. And we don’t want just one thing to replace the coal industry because that’s going to put us right back in the same problem.”
No matter what, other coal states will be watching to see how Virginia handles this pilot project, to chart a path for the economy that goes beyond coal.