Congressional watchdog to probe idled ‘zombie’ coal mines

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will investigate the environmental impact of idled “zombie” coal mines in response to an October request from several congressional Democrats, a GAO spokesperson confirmed.

In October, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and seven House Democrats wrote to the GAO to ask for a probe into such mines, which often qualify as active under the law while remaining unused for years and going without maintenance or scrutiny, potentially leaving the surrounding area vulnerable to leaks and other environmental hazards.

In an email to The Hill, a GAO spokesperson said it will act on the request, with a projected start date of March or April. The spokesperson added that the GAO cannot yet speak to the completion date — which it says hinges on what information agency officials allow access to — but said such investigations are typically finish within 14 months.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC), which has advocated for an investigation into the impacts of idled mines, praised the GAO announcement.

“We’re very pleased that Congress has recognized that there are many weaknesses in the coal mine reclamation and bonding system and this GAO study is an important step in helping us further quantify the issues that we’re experiencing,” ACLC Policy Director Rebecca Shelton told The Hill in an email. “It is challenging to piece together a full understanding of the scope and scale of the problems we’re facing because comprehensive data on outstanding reclamation liability is not available. The GAO study will help us bring forward an efficient and effective policy solution.”

A 2019 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found more than 200 idled mines in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, about half of which have been idled for at least three years. A handful in the central Appalachia region have been idled for at least 15 years.

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