Feds open grant for state to count and clean up abandoned coal mine sites

By: - August 12, 2022 4:00 am

A worker measures methane at one of the underground coal fires in New Mexico in 2015. (Photo credit: Koveva, Ltd. via the U.S. Department of the Interior)

New Mexico could soon have money to build an inventory of exactly how many coal mines were abandoned in the state before 1977.

The Interior Department announced earlier this month that the state can now apply for $2.4 million as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021, a key element of President Biden’s goal to fund projects across the country.

More than $11.5 billion for abandoned mine cleanup was appropriated in the bill. This money will be distributed over the span of 15-years. The first round includes $725 million available for 22 states and the Navajo Nation, which can apply for up to $1.6 million to clean up coal mines on tribal land.

According to the state’s Abandoned Mine Land Program, more than 15,000 sites exist, but it’s unclear how many are specially coal mine sites.

A map shows the regions where abandoned coal mines are located in NM. (Image courtesy NM EMNRD)

The predominant region for abandoned coal mines in New Mexico exists in the San Juan Basin, located in the Four Corners. Navajo Nation Eastern Agency sites are located in this area. The map of legacy sites is kept by the state’s Coal Mine Reclamation Program that was created in the 1980s. 

According to the N.M. Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, “Abandoned coal mines can create such problems as mine fires and subsidence holes, even after the initial coal mine entrances are closed.”

On top of this funding, Congress reauthorized a fee on coal companies to pay for abandoned mine cleanup that will give New Mexico an additional $2.8 million to help with the sites here, said a spokesperson with the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources department.

New Mexico officials said they plan to have their proposal to the Interior Department within the coming weeks. 

As part of their application, the state must show how the money will be invested in “disadvantaged communities” and prioritize projects that “maximizes the amount of methane emissions that can be reduced.”

The feds would also like states and tribes to create plans that emphasize employment opportunities for former coal workers to help with cleanup efforts.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.