Did you know there are 48,529 abandoned coal mines in the United States which are known to pose a threat to the public and/or the environment? This number comes from the most comprehensive federal database that we know of – the enhanced Abandoned Mine Lands Inventory System (eAMLIS) maintained by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM).
Of the 48,529 abandoned mine sites shown on the map below, 36,191 are categorized “Priority 1″ or “Priority 2“, meaning they pose a “threat to health, safety and general welfare of people.” The remaining 12,408 mines are classified as “Priority 3“, that is, sites which pose a threat to the environment. However, because this map only includes mines that are truly abandoned AND which have been catalogued by the federal government, this map is probably not a complete inventory of the abandoned and inactive coal mines in the US.
Back in August the Animas River in southwestern Colorado turned orange for miles after millions of gallons of mine waste erupted from an inactive gold mine. The dayglo color of the river, coupled with the fact that the spill was trigged by contractors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) trying to fix the problem, captured national attention for weeks. In response to that spill we took it upon ourselves to map nearly 65,000 inactive metal mines using the most extensive federal database that we could find. The spill from the Gold King Mine was not the first of its kind, and it most likely will not be the last, but it revived discussion about the challenge and cost of reclaiming an estimated 500,000 abandoned and inactive mines (gold, coal, and otherwise) that litter the landscape.
According to OSM definitions this database of problematic coal mines includes 1,167 “Dangerous Impoundments”, 1,298 sites with polluted groundwater (“Polluted Water: Agricultural & Industrial” and “Polluted Water: Human Consumption”), and 276 “Underground Mine Fires” like the one still burning beneath the ghost town of Centralia. But again, we have to add a caveat: just because a mine was classified abandoned does not mean that there hasn’t at least been some effort made at reclamation. “Abandoned” in this context means that the responsible party (the mining company) has reneged on their responsibility for reclamation, leaving the taxpayers (you and I) stuck with the bill to clean it up.
Above: The Cheat River in Preston County, WV still has rocks stained orange by acid mine drainage from an abandoned mine which first blew out in 1994. Read the history of that mine blowout and the efforts which have restored the Cheat River to a thriving, life-sustaining waterway. Image via Friends of the Cheat.
This database primarily covers abandoned coal mines. While there are a few non-coal mines in the database, we did our best to exclude any non-coal mines based on the federal funding source assigned to their cleanup. With some guidance from a GIS specialist at OSM we believe this map provides a decent overview of the known high-priority abandoned coal mines, but please let us know if you discover any mistakes by commenting below.
Much like our previous map of abandoned and inactive metal mines, this map is only part of the story. There are many flaws within the federal database, including contradictory descriptions of what the various fields mean. But while we know this doesn’t show every abandoned coal mine the country, and some sites may have been expertly reclaimed by state, federal, and non-profit initiatives, this map also underscores the alarming lack of reliable data about sites which could still cause disastrous releases of toxic wastes for decades to come.