BOONE COUNTY, W.Va. — In an effort to clean up abandoned coal mine lands and give them new life, a coalition of groups in the Appalachian region has formed.

20 former coal sites stretching across four states were mentioned in the report authored by the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, “Many Voices, Many Solutions: Innovative Mine Reclamation in Central Appalachia.”

A highlight in the report of the sites is a mixed agriculture and renewable energy project proposed on a former strip mine in Boone County.

“We are trying to find ways to not necessarily reinvent the wheel but take what we see as best practices in different areas that would be applicable in different sites such as abandon land mine sites,” Jacob Hannah, Conservation Coordinator with Coalfield Development Corporation, said.

The Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition consists of lead organizations in four states: Appalachian Voices in Virginia, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, and Rural Action in Ohio, and a regional technical expert, Downstream Strategies, based in West Virginia.

Hannah noted a few examples of how they are trying to breath new life into the old mines. Because in the aftermath of a strip coal mine the area does not have fertile soil in the ground, so the group starts by using equipment to try and bust up the rocky terrain and make fertile land. Examples of work noted by Hannah included potentially implementing solar modulations on top of the strip mines. Agroforestry, utilizing and expanding the growth of natural native Appalachian flora, and building an aquaponic system on the mines to grow their own fish while setting up a cyclical process with the fish and plants nearby were all ideas mentioned.

“There’s not really one flagship project that we are trying to say this is one key way to making abandon coal mines reusable again,” Hannah said. “We are looking at a myriad of options and seeing what works best in different areas. When you zoom out and look at the geographical socio-demographic areas, some mines are closer to schools, shopping centers, and natural forests. You really have to be creative and not think it’s going to be a one tool situation to every sort of situation that exists for abandoned mine sites.

“No one has solved the riddle of abandon mine sites yet. So what we are trying to do is see what we can plug into that empty slot that is unused land and see what will grow from it and what will flourish. Not to say that we have or haven’t found that yet, but it’s too early to tell what the universally applicable model for any mine site is.”

In the release by the coalition, it also stated the importance of local communities across the Appalachian to develop into places where young people will stay and work. It also stated that the 166 Appalachian counties within the project area represent a population of more than 5.7 million people, nearly 40-percent of whom live in counties categorized by the Appalachian Regional Commission as at-risk or distressed based on unemployment, income and poverty factors.

“The communities have been optimistic,” Hannah said. “Their reactions is how can we be a part of it. That’s always the question we are asking ourselves as well. We don’t want to bring up about a good initiative but in through the wrong way. We want to make sure we are capturing the creativity of local West Virginians.”

Joey James of Downstream Strategies has been working closely with the project in Boone County. He said the project has just been proposed and a submitted grant application to the state Office of Abandon Mine Lands has been put in.

“We want to identify a model that is beneficial to land holding mine companies that have these lands,” James said. “And  we want to figure out something that benefits companies that own this land that aren’t necessarily interest in selling it. That’s our path forward.”

Other projects highlighted in the report include an affordable green-energy subdivision near abandoned mine lands in Hazard, Kentucky, a facility in the Village of Corning that uses acid mine drainage to produce valuable paint pigment in Ohio, and an outdoor adventure resort on a reclaimed highwall in Dickenson County, Virginia.

Hannah noted that the different projects take different times to complete and no dates were given out. He said the biggest issue moving forward is collecting funding and strategizing the projects.

Funding for these projects includes the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program, which appropriated $105 million in 2017 and $115 million in 2018, and the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) program, which contributed $50 million to economic diversification in central Appalachia. The release also stated the coalition and others have continued advocating for passage of the RECLAIM Act and additional investment in the region where it is most urgently needed.

The RECLAIM Act is currently pending in Congress and would accelerate the distribution of $1 billion of existing funds over five years to revitalize coal communities.