Group aims to find, clean up abandoned coal mines in Tennessee

Group aims to find, clean up abandoned coal mines in Tennessee

April 22nd, 2015 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

A trio of environmental groups have their sights set on identifying abandoned coal mines in Tennessee's coalfield counties.

The groups hope to find mines not already on an inventory of sites targeted for cleanup funding.

Ann League, executive director of the Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment known as SOCM, says the groups want to add to the list of sites that can be cleaned up with Tennessee's federal Abandoned Mine Lands Fund money.

SOCM has teamed up with Appalachian Transition Fellows Kendall Bilbrey and Eric Dixon, through their host organizations, The Alliance for Appalachia in Knoxville and the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., respectively. The fellowship is administered by the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn.

Abandoned mine land sites in Tennessee's coalfield counties.

Abandoned mine land sites in Tennessee's coalfield counties.

Illustration by Matt McClane

Abandoned mines can damage the environment and pollute drinking water sources, which is why the old sites need to be cleaned up.

The Abandoned Mine Lands fund program was established to help clean up mines that had not been reclaimed before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was passed. Tennessee gets $3.4 million a year for the work but it would take more than $42 million to clean up the inventory of known sites now, League said.

Besides the known mining sites, some of which are on privately-owned land, there are many old coal mine sites that have never been catalogued, she said.

In Tennessee, Scott, Campbell and Anderson counties are home to the most abandoned mine land sites, though there are plenty of others in Bledsoe, Cumberland, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, Rhea, Roane, Sequatchie, Van Buren and White counties in the Chattanooga area.

Very few of the known sites have been repaired, League said.

The goal is to spread the word among county officials and the general public that there is money to clean up the sites and identify new sites, she said, "because we know there was a lot of wildcat mining back in the '60s and '70s."

The funds also could help create jobs and diversify the local economy in the coalfield counties that, with the reduction in coal production over the years, historically have some of the highest unemployment figures in the state, League said.

Cumberland County resident and SOCM member June Zettelmeyer is planning a presentation about the effort in Crossville before the Cumberland County Commission as soon as May.

"This is a no-brainer," Zettelmeyer said. "It's federal money that has already been collected so it's no burden on taxpayers."

Zettelmeyer said the campaign is in the education phase now. The groups have not formally visited the Chattanooga area, except one March meeting at Monteagle in Grundy County. Officials plan to do some outreach in Southeast Tennessee soon, according to League.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or or or 423-757-6569.