Idled coal and uranium mines could show the way for the United States to regulate the unintended consequences of sustainable-energy technologies. Getting there will depend on finding the patience to understand the problems and the political will to fix them.
Coal counties in the East and West are dotted with mines that have not operated for years, sometimes decades, but aren’t dead either. Once active coal and uranium producers, these zombies are now idled in a limbo called “temporary cessation.”
Regulators created temporary cessations to help owners wait out notoriously volatile energy prices. According to an investigation by High Country News, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data indicate there are at least 415 idled coal mines, about half in Appalachia.
These mines aren’t coming back. More coal-fired power plants have been closed since 2016 than from 2008 to 2016, according to CNN. Loosened federal regulations have not changed that trajectory.
In the West, zombie mines are more often uranium operations. Some are underground mines, the last of which ceased operation in 2015. Open-pit mines haven’t operated in decades. Uranium isn’t coming back anytime soon, either.
The problem is that temporary cessation for all these zombies means operators don’t have to do any of the cleanup necessary to keep old mines from polluting the surrounding environment. When regulators try to force a clean-up, a mine can simply re-enter “active” status, even though returning an idled mine to production takes years.
A hodgepodge of state and federal rules, created over decades and in competing jurisdictions, resulted in laws and enforcement vehicles that created this giant loophole. Overlapping, sometimes conflicting, regulations were put in place in federal and state jurisdictions. The principal authors of those policies were mining interests, with little weight given to other stakeholders.
The costs of all these zombie mines will be borne by former miners, neighboring communities and, ultimately, taxpayers.
The zombies are an example of what emerging regulations for the renewable-energy industry should not allow in the future. Elected officials should avoid jurisdictional squabbles or industry interference and create a comprehensive set of regulations for the emerging renewable-energy industry. The result should reflect both new technologies and enduring public interests.
Making renewable-energy producers accountable now, in these early stages, is the best way make sure that wind and sun zombies don’t appear later.