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Local watershed groups make plans for windfall of Abandoned Mine Lands funds for acid mine drainage projects

MORGANTOWN – Two local watershed groups are looking forward to opportunities to receive new federal infrastructure money to support their missions of stream preservation and community enhancement.

The Dominion Post spoke this past week with Friends of the Cheat and Friends of Deckers Creek about their plans, and with Rep. David McKinley about the importance of the new Abandoned Mine Lands money to come to the state Department of Environmental Protection through the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

McKinley, along with Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito announced the allotment of funds for West Virginia from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in early February (Reps. Alex Mooney and Carol Miller both opposed the bill.).

This fiscal year’s allotment was $140.7 million – more than the amount for any of the other 23 eligible states except Pennsylvania. The bill allots that to West Virginia each year through Fiscal Year 2027. The total annual U.S. allotment is about $725 million per year across 15 years, with West Virginia to receive the nearly $141 million each of those 15 years.

McKinley noted that the $140.7 million is about seven times more than the state receives through traditional AML funding generated by tonnage fees on coal mining. AML fees go toward reclamation and water treatment from mines abandoned before August 3, 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted.

Friends of the Cheat Executive Director Amanda Pitzer said the AML community is exicted by the prospects of the big, steady source of funds. “We’re strategizing and putting our heads together about how to increase capacity and use these funds to help communities.”

FOC’s first priority, she said, will be paying for ongoing operations and maintenance at 20 existing sites. “Now we’ll be able to actually do some things that we’ve been putting off.” That includes freshening up the limestone that helps neutralize the acid mine drainage (AMD) pouring out of the old mines, and improving wetland areas.

Priority two will be the Lick Run Mine portals – the single largest source of AMD into the Cheat River, pouring 300,000 pounds of iron and 200,000 pounds of aluminum per year into the river.

“That’s the site that’s in our cross hairs that could have one of the largest water quality impacts to the cheat main stem,” she said.

Pitzer told The Dominion Post in 2020 that it would cost about $4.5 million for a treatment facility, plus up to $250,000 per year to run it. They are now working toward a fresh construction estimate in view of escalating post-COVID inflation costs.

They also have in view, she said, a Dream Mountain treatment project, where Muddy Creek and Martin Creek come together near the intersection of Highway 26 and Woolen Mill Road.

This site is just upstream from the DEP’s T&T plant on Muddy Creek, she said, and there’s a small gap where polluted water is coming into Muddy Creek.

It’s been historically hard to get a construction grant above $250,000, Pitzer said, so the new money will hopefully alleviate that; so they won’t have to cut corners such as buying lower quality limestone. “With the new moneys, we won’t have those restrictions.”

But there’s one glitch in all this, Pitzer said, and they’re awaiting resolution from Congress.

McKinley’s office explained the glitch. Traditional AML funding allows states to set aside up to 30% of their allotment for long-term operations and maintenance of AMD sites. (No state uses anywhere near that much, his office said; West Virginia typically sets aside about 18%.) But the infrastructure act failed to specify that.

So McKinley is working with Rep. Matt Cutright, D-Pa., and some Senate counterparts to draft a technical fix. His office said they aren’t sure when this might pass, but perhaps in the next couple months and hopefully sooner than later.

Ptizer said the fix is needed because watershed groups are hesitant to use their new AML money for construction projects if they can’t also get funds to keep the projects running. “The new infrastructure money is our Cadillac and we need the gas to put in the car.”

Along with helping clean up mine-polluted streams and enhancing recreation and economic development, the infrastructure money will offer one more benefit, Pitzer said: good-paying, green collar jobs for people to take care of the treatment sites.

Friends of Deckers Creek Executive Director Brian Hurley said he was hesitant to talk too much about their hopes and dreams yet because they don’t have money in hand.

He did say they’ve applied for a grant through the state Economic Development Department to hire more staff.

And they plan to apply for a grant for a feasibility study dealing with E. coli problems at the lower end of the creek that stem in part from combined sewer overflows — when heavy rainfalls exceed the capacity of the system and cause mixed rainwater and sewer to empty into the creek or its tributaries.

Highwalls and caves

AMD is the more familiar abandoned mine problem. But McKinley learned about another issue during a trip to Morgantown last month. He visited the abandoned Fairfield mine portal site off U.S. 119.

It was a surface mine that later turned into a sort of underground mine. It has highwalls that form dangerous cliffs that animals and people can fall from. And it has open portals where the miners tunneled into the highwall bases to delve for more coal inside the hill. They form caves of sorts and people can wander back into them and get lost or injured.

The protal sites were littered with refuse, McKinley said, indicating people have partied there and probably wandered back inside the hill.

SO DEP plans to use some of the AML funds, he said, to remediate the site.

DEP said the project consists of about 4,725 linear feet of highwall separated into six distinct sections, ranging from 15-40 feet in height, with 13 open portals, at least 10 collapsed portals, about 2,100 feet of clogged stream and a stream capture.

Several impoundments will be opened,DEP said, to decrease the chance of a blowout occurring. Clogged streams will be unclogged and the stream capture will be grouted to keep surface water from entering the underground mines and emanating as acid mine drainage.

The project will also upgrade the access roads to the site, backfill the highwall to its near original contour, reconstruct stream channels and construct drainage channels as needed.The highwall backfilling will also cover the portals.

The cost was estimated at $1.6 million in 2017, DEP said, and has likely changed substantially. Start and ends aren’t known yet; the project must go through the real estate acquisition, National Environmental Policy Act and design processes.

While McKinley and Capito both have taken political heat for supporting the infrastructure act, both said it was important to pay for roads, bridges, broadband and, in this case, AMD cleanup for the nation and the state.

Traditional AML funding for West Virginia – about $18.5 million annually – has been nowhere near enough to touch the problem of AMD, highwalls and open portals, McKinley said.

“How long are we going to keep tolerating this?” he asked. “We’ve always fallen further and further behind.” The infrastructure bill offered an opportunity to put some money into it. “… It’s holding back our economic development. We just don’t have the resources to do it the old way.”

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