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Pennsylvania to get surge of money for abandoned mine cleanup

Pennsylvania is eligible for a surge of funds this year from the federal infrastructure law to clean up lands and waterways damaged by abandoned coal mines, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced Monday.

Pennsylvania’s nearly $245 million allocation dwarfs every other state because it has the largest inventory of abandoned mine land problem areas in the nation. West Virginia, the next-largest beneficiary, is eligible for nearly $141 million this fiscal year.

The funding announced Monday is more than triple Pennsylvania’s typical annual grant. In the past five years, Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine land grants from the federal government averaged $65.5 million a year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The initial round of funding is part of $11.3 billion that the infrastructure law dedicates to abandoned mine cleanup over 15 years. Pennsylvania is estimated to receive nearly $4 billion of that total.

The state’s abandoned mine reclamation bureau has been preparing for the landmark funding boost for months, with the aim of taking on complex, costly projects it could never tackle before.

The money can be used to clean up scars from mines abandoned before 1977, including waste heaps, underground fires and mines that release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The infrastructure bill prioritizes funding for projects that employ dislocated coal industry workers, the Interior Department said.

The environmental cleanup features of the wide-ranging bill put a special focus on remediating the legacy fossil fuel extraction and aim to employ workers in those communities that bear the damage.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said the funding “means that Americans will be put to work in good-paying jobs” while U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, said it presents an opportunity to “restore the land and prepare it for the opportunities presented by the new economy.”

The infrastructure bill was supported by all of Pennsylvania’s Democratic senators and representatives and one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick from Bucks County.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland confirmed during a visit to northeastern Pennsylvania last month that the funds can also be used to build and maintain acid mine drainage treatment facilities, which are key to restoring life to orange-stained rivers.

Pennsylvania’s 5,500 miles of mine-damaged streams have historically received far less federal grant money than abandoned mine sites that pose the greatest threat to human safety, like waste piles and tunnels at risk of collapse.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he is pushing for additional flexibility for states to use the infrastructure funding to address acid mine drainage, including through set-aside accounts that are in place to fund treatment facilities' operations in perpetuity.

In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf said the funds “will address the dangers of abandoned mines while simultaneously supporting new, good-paying jobs, economic recovery and community revitalization.”

The allocation announced Monday is in addition to the traditional annual grants Pennsylvania receives from a trust funded by coal operators based on their current production. The infrastructure law reauthorized that trust fund through 2034 with a lower per-ton fee.

The Interior Department said those grant awards will be announced in the coming weeks.

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