Last night, the U.S. House voted to pass bipartisan, bicameral legislation led in the House by Congressman Matt Cartwright (PA-08) that addresses acid mine drainage -- one of the most visible, costly and hazardous remnants of the area's coal mining history.
The Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines (STREAM) Act was first introduced in March by Congressman Cartwright alongside Republican Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia. A companion bill in the Senate was spearheaded by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey and Indiana Republican Mike Braun.
Friday night's final vote was 391 to 9, with 180 House Republicans voting for Rep. Cartwright's bill.
"I'm happy to have led this legislation through the House and am grateful to Sen. Bob Casey for initiating this effort," said Rep. Cartwright. "It's also heartening to see that we can once again put partisan differences aside, this time to pass important legislation that brings us one step closer to cleaning up our waterways for existing and future generations. Restoring acid mine drainage sites creates jobs, brings back recreational opportunities, boosts our economies, and makes our communities safer, stronger and more attractive to new investments without costing taxpayers an additional penny."
The next step for the STREAM Act is consideration in the Senate.
"Across the Commonwealth, abandoned mines pose serious health and safety hazards for Pennsylvania families. Thanks to the infrastructure law, coal-mining regions are receiving billions to reclaim abandoned mine lands. The STREAM Act allows communities to use this funding to clean up the acid mine drainage polluting many lakes and streams and in doing so, will create long-term jobs, support local economies and restore fishing and recreation opportunities," said Senator Casey. "I urge my Senate colleagues to support this bill and help communities across the Nation gain access to clean water."
In communities like Northeast Pennsylvania that once relied on the coal industry, mines that have been shuttered for almost 50 years continue to pollute streams, rivers and creeks, turning them orange due to a chemical reaction that creates acid mine drainage. These polluted bodies of water are not just an eyesore, they pose an ongoing threat to the health and welfare of residents and wildlife and undermine economic development efforts. Acid mine drainage affects ecosystems in more than 5,500 miles of Pennsylvania waterways, causing an annual loss of $29 million in revenue from lack of fishing alone.
West Virginia's acid mine drainage issues are very similar to Pennsylvania's.
"More than 1,500 miles of rivers and streams across West Virginia have been fouled by acid mine drainage from abandoned mines. This bill provides states with the flexibility to use funds long-term water treatment so that West Virginia can take full advantage of the historic increase in Abandoned Mine Land funding from the infrastructure bill," said Rep. McKinley. "Future generations of West Virginians deserve to enjoy clean water for drinking, fishing and recreation. This bill ensure West Virginia and other states can use existing funds to address this problem."
Compounding the problem, acid mine drainage never goes away. Remediation requires long-term treatment facilities and, in turn, long-term funding. Although the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) secured $11.3 billion for coal communities, it did not allow those affected to set IIJA funds aside for future waterway needs.
The STREAM Act fixes that, ensuring states can use IIJA funds for the ongoing treatment acid mine drainage requires.
"For most states affected by acid mine drainage, it is fiscally impossible to set aside enough money to safeguard existing -- and future - treatment systems," said John Dawes, Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. "We are grateful for Rep. Cartwright's efforts in leading the passage of the STREAM Act in the House and now look to those in the Senate to support Sen. Casey's efforts to pass this crucial legislation."
Bobby Hughes, Executive Director of the Eastern PA Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, agrees time is of the essence.
"We can't wait any longer for clean streams, green spaces, vibrant and diversified regional economies, and communities in which our children can safely recreate, live, work and play," Hughes said. "Ensuring that funds exist for the long-term operation and maintenance is essential for making sure that acid mine drainage problems are addressed and that we have waterways that are inviting for recreation and safe for community use. We really need private landowners to be open to consideration of future monitoring and eventual treatment of acid mine drainage if we are going to clean up our over 5,500 miles of waterways impaired by acid mine drainage."
More than 35 organizations have endorsed the STREAM Act, including the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and Appalachian Voices, with offices in Boone, North Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Knoxville, Tennessee.
"No one should have to live in a community threatened by polluted water, so we are grateful for Rep. Cartwright, Rep. McKinley, Senator Casey, and Senator Braun's efforts to solve the acid mine drainage crisis while creating jobs at the same time," said Chelsea Barnes, Legislative Director of Appalachian Voices. "This simple fix would not cost taxpayers any additional money and would breathe life into communities hit hard by the decline of coal. Now that Congressman Cartwright has shepherded the bill through the House, the Senate needs to get on board and support this common-sense solution to a decades-long crisis as soon as possible."