Concerns about water quality near abandoned coal mines surface

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation says the average cost of reclamation is about $11,000 per acre.

The history of coal mines is rich in the Tennessee Valley, especially in Southeast Tennessee, and now there are hundreds of abandoned mines across our viewing area.

Surface mines can be found in Hamilton, Marion, Grundy, Sequatchie, Rhea and Bledsoe Counties.

The government cracked down on the environmental impact of coal mining in 1977, but before that , companies removed as much coal as possible and abandoned the mines.

Wanda Hodge and Patrick Morales are involved with the activist group Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment (SOCM).

Their main concern with the mines is the impact on the water quality.

They led NewsChannel 9 to a bright orange stream in Sequatchie County that they found particularly alarming. It is just down the hill from an abandoned mine field.

"When I see this, I know it isn't healthy," said Morales, who serves as the SOCM Board President. "I know the animals are affected by it. I know the trees are affected by it. I know that if I'm hiking or backpacking and I'm in need of water, this is not a water source that I could use."

We decided to test the water for ourselves and took a sample to Technical Laboratories in Chattanooga.

The results showed elevated levels of iron, almost 20 times higher than it should be.

"The iron is a typical problem with coal mining," said Technical Laboratories President Lewis Cain.

Cain has been in the water analysis business for 50 years. He said in the case of the Sequatchie runoff, the discoloration is likely caused by iron bacteria, microorganisms that feed on the metal.

"The iron-forming bacteria has a tendency to multiply and consume the oxygen in the water so that would be detrimental to the aquatic life," said Cain.

Some of the damage of abandoned mines can be restored with a process known as reclamation.

However, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation told NewsChannel 9 only 70 sites in our area have been reclaimed out of more than 250, which is about 2400 acres of unreclaimed mine lands.

"There may be many more sites that have not yet been identified because some of these operations that were working in the 60's and 70's just came and went," said Morales. "Got their coal and were gone before anyone even knew they were there."

TDEC says the estimated total cost of the state's remaining projects is $11 million.

Federal funding is available for clean up efforts: billions of dollars in the Office of Surface Mining's Abandoned Mine Land Fund (AML). However, it is slow-moving and bound by a lot of red tape.

Morales and Hodge say the money is desperately needed and they'll keep pushing until all the mine lands in Tennessee are safe.

"If there's anything we can do to correct the damage that's been done in the past, let's do it," said Hodge. "If there's anything we can do to make sure this damage doesn't happen in the future, let's do it."


UPDATE

After we published and aired this story, we heard from Christopher Holmes with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, who took issue with how we characterized the Abandoned Mine Land Fund.

Here is what he had to say:

"While there is about $2.4 billion available to the entire nation in the AML fund, it is distributed based on a formula tied to how much coal is produced in each state. That's why Tennessee gets about $3 million each year, and has for several years. We also fight the misconception every year when someone hears that "the government has a couple of billion dollars just laying around," and then they believe they can just ask for that money.

But here's the biggest problem: the AML program is not slow moving, and it's not bound by 'red tape.' While there are verification requirements to show that a project is directly tied to abandoned coal mine lands, funding can start very quickly if there's an imminent or emergency threat to people or the environment. You can find several examples on our AML Awards page where some projects were turned around in a matter of days. But even on a more typical basis, we disburse money to the state within a couple of months after the state's request is processed."


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