The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mineral Resources Management administers both a state abandoned mine land (AML) program and a federal AML program to address the highest priority problems resulting from coal mining that occurred prior to enactment of today’s stricter reclamation requirements.
Passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by Congress in 2021 provided needed funding for the restoration of legacy abandoned mine impacts in Ohio and extended the severance fee collected on coal mined in Ohio for another 13 years at a reduced rate.
- $696 million potential funding available through 2036 from the Infrastructure Bill
- $46.4 million funding in 2022
- $3-5 million additional annually in severance-based grant through 2034
State and federal funds provide resources for the Division’s Abandoned Mine Land Program to investigate, design and construct projects to address the environmental, public health and safety problems related to abandoned mines.
Ohio’s rich 200-year old mining legacy played a large part in fueling the nation’s industrial development. More than 3.6 billion tons of coal have been extracted from Ohio’s coal-bearing region since 1800. Poorly regulated mining during its first 150 years of existence in Ohio left impacts on the environment and the social fabric of its citizens.
Much of the land disturbed by surface mining for coal prior to 1948 was not reclaimed after mining. While most of Ohio’s surface mining took place after enactment of the state’s first surface mining law in 1948, reclamation requirements were not adequate by today’s standard. Prior to 1972, Ohio’s statutes did not require restoration of desirable environmental conditions to the surface mined areas. Likewise, land disturbed by the surface mining of industrial minerals such as shale, limestone, and sand and gravel prior to 1975 was not restored to current standards.
As a result, the state was left with nearly 450,000 acres of land that were surface mined for coal prior to Ohio’s stringent 1972 reclamation law and 6,000 underground coal mines that exist below 600,000 acres of land.
By 1972 the problems included:
- 1,300 miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage
- 500 miles of streams affected by sediment deposition
- Nearly 119,000 acres of land in need of major reclamation efforts
- Hundreds of acres of land prone to deep mine subsidence
- Polluted domestic water supplies
- Hundreds of acres of landslides, among other problems
State AML Program
A state-funded abandoned mine land reclamation program for Ohio was realized with the establishment of the Unreclaimed Lands Fund in 1972.
The fund is utilized to complete reclamation projects on public and private lands affected by surface mining prior to April 10, 1972. A state severance tax is imposed on active surface mine operators who extract coal and a limited number of industrial minerals. This state severance tax provides approximately $1.0 million annually to the Unreclaimed Lands Fund.
Projects primarily focus on coal-related environmental restoration, such as the restoration of streams impacted by acid mine drainage. The program also provides supplemental funding for the reclamation of industrial minerals mining sites that were left in an unreclaimed state and where the forfeited surety bond is insufficient to complete the restoration.
Federal AML Program
In recognition of the significant number of serious abandoned mine land problems resulting from past unregulated mining, the federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.
Not only did this legislation mirror Ohio’s effective reclamation law of 1972 for the regulation of active mining, it created an abandoned mine land program to address the emergency and highest priority non-emergency problems associated with mining that occurred: prior to August 3, 1977; between August 4, 1977 and August 16, 1982 where performance security is not sufficient to provide for adequate reclamation; or between August 4, 1977 and November 5, 1990 where the surety of the mining operator became insolvent and no money was available from the proceeding to provide for adequate reclamation.
Annual grants are awarded by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which is supported by a federal severance tax on coal mined nationwide.
AML Problem Types
The Division maintains and updates a comprehensive inventory of abandoned mine sites and related problems as they are discovered. The cost of their remediation is valued at more than $350 million, excluding streams polluted by acid mine drainage. As this cost far exceeds anticipated program revenues, only the highest priority public health and safety and environmental problems are selected for possible program funding.
On both a state and national scale, mine openings and tunnels are the most frequently encountered AML problems. When many older underground mines were abandoned, the entries into them were not adequately sealed. Unstable or open portals and shafts on the ground surface can be very hazardous. Dangers within the mines include poisonous or explosive gases, oxygen deficiencies, flooded sections, unstable roofs, hard-to-see vertical shafts, venomous insects and snakes, and disorienting mazes of mine workings. These problems are compounded by total darkness within underground mines.
Abandoned mines are nothing like naturally formed caves, which are attractive to recreational and professional explorers. Abandoned mines should never be mistaken for caves! Old mines and shafts conceal a multitude of potentially lethal hazards. Each year, a number of people are killed or injured nationally in abandoned mines. The safest thing to do is to stay completely out of them.
Spoil banks from surface mines, coal waste piles, and natural slopes at abandoned mines sometimes become unstable. The most common causes of landslides include the following: steep slopes; saturation of slopes by water from underground mines, surface mine pits, or natural aquifers; and the inherent instability of the disturbed materials. Landslides can damage roads and buildings, and can block paths of streams, causing upstream flooding.
Highwalls are created during surface mining as sides of hills are removed to expose coal seams. Rock faces resembling cliffs remain at the point where the mining excavation ceased. Before stricter reclamation laws were passed, miners were not required to backfill mine spoil against highwalls. Thus, there are many miles of highwall remaining in Ohio. Typically, they range in height from 20 feet to 100 feet. The degree to which they pose a danger to the public is determined by proximity to human dwellings or activities and to public roads; stability; and heights and angles.
Erosion and sedimentation from AML lands often cause flooding problems by clogging stream channels and culverts. Extensive amounts of reclamation have been done to eliminate AML sediment sources in southern and eastern Ohio.
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD)
Rock layers associated with the coal seam sometimes contain iron sulfide minerals, with pyrite the most common. Sulfur-bearing materials exposed to air and water during mining react with oxygen and water to form dilute solutions of sulfuric acid which may also contain a number of other dissolved minerals. This contaminated water, referred to as acid mine drainage (AMD), often seeps from underground mines and sometimes from surface mined areas. AMD is a significant environmental problem associated with abandoned mined lands and is often very difficult to control. Over 1300 miles of Ohio streams are impacted by AMD.
Mine subsidence is a common problem caused by abandoned underground mines. Subsidence occurs when the coal pillars and roof supports left in an underground mine can no longer support the bedrock above the mine. The loss of support is transferred to the ground surface which also drops, creating structural problems for houses, roads or utilities in the subsidence area.
When buildings are constructed above mines, major damage to walls and foundations can occur if the mine subsides. Most insurance policies do not automatically cover mine subsidence damage to homes. Ohio law established the Ohio Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund in 1987 which allows individuals residing in certain counties to purchase insurance for protection from structural losses due to mine subsidence.