Backlog of unreclaimed mine lands puts people at risk of flooding and landslides
Outside the small town of Pound in Wise County, Margaret Osborne stands overlooking the stream that continually floods her yard.
“The main concern with the flooding is it will eventually get to our home,” Osborne said.
When the creek floods, eight inches of water blocks access to her home. “And if we are home we can’t get out.”
Margaret and her husband Brian have lived here 31 years. They see in the past decade they’ve seen more flooding.
“I remember one time it rained, I walked over here and I could see the water running and I could just see the sand and the grit rolling with it. Just coming down,” Brian Osborne said. “I thought, well it’s gotten worse now.”
A strip mine behind their home that was mined in the 50s and 60s is to blame, according to the Virginia Department of Energy. Sediment from the mine site was never properly dealt with, and over the years, dirt’s drifted down the mountain, clogging drainpipes, and filling in the stream.
Theoretically, this stream is eligible to be reclaimed with Abandoned Mine Lands money. But that program has been historically underfunded, and projects of this scale are often left undone for years, said Lisa Baker, with the Virginia Department of Energy.
“I have watched it flood over here for many, many years. We just didn’t have the funding to take care of it,” Baker said.
But now, they do have funding, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which congress passed last year.
Normally, Virginia receives $3-4 million per year. With this new funding, they’ll get about $26 million every year.
Even with that, the agency still likely won’t have enough money to do all the work that’s needed.
This one project in Pound will cost at least $10 million.
Heavy rain events bring mud, landslides, and anxiety for people like the Osbornes, who live in flood-prone areas. 45 years after federal legislation passed to force coal companies to reclaim the land, numerous sites from before 1977 continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. A law passed in 1977 was supposed to force companies to reclaim land. But much of the damage before the 70s still hasn’t been repaired.
Baker said there are needed projects all over the coalfields. Sometimes, an issue goes unnoticed for years, until somebody moves to an area.
That’s what happened in the nearby community of Coeburn. This February, a resident was moving a mobile home onto a property, but heavy rains unearthed a structural issue on an old mine site, causing a landslide. The Virginia Department of Energy declared the site an emergency.
AML funds were used to channel the water so it didn’t force another landslide, and the slope of the mountain was widened to make it safe again, said Holly White, an engineer who oversaw this project.
“So there should be no more water coming out of the portals on this area where there had been a slide at all. So this should be good to go,” White said.
Today, a family lives in a mobile home at the base of where repairs were made. “This should last a very long time,” White said.
Virginia deals with about four of these AML emergencies a year. Other states, like Kentucky and West Virginia, have more.
Baker said she hopes the new funding will help the state catch up on the long backlog of overdue projects. And find structural issues before they become a threat to people.
“You know, everything’s changing, as time goes on. And as these sites, they’re aging. There will be more problems that will appear.”
As climate change brings more heavy rain events to central Appalachia, former mine sites that were never reclaimed could cause more landslides and clogged streams.
Back at the Osborne’s home, Brian Osborne said he has mixed feelings about what mining has done to Wise County. He recognizes that some companies left a terrible legacy. At the same time, he’s worked as a mechanic, and most of his customers have been miners.
“But I’m not against the coal, by no means,” Osborne said. “Cause that’s how I’ve made my living, everybody around here works in the deep mines or strip jobs. That’s our living.”
Osborne and his wife keep watching the forecast. Each heavy rain brings another time when they could be trapped inside their house for days, and the stream often floods several times a year. They hope the water doesn’t reach their house while they wait for the stream to be repaired.