GAO report dings Interior reviews of coal cleanup projects

By Hannah Northey | 06/20/2024 04:22 PM EDT

Officials in Virginia told the watchdog that Interior took more than 1,100 days to review a project proposal.

A conveyor belt moves underground mined coal to the surface.

A conveyor belt moves underground mined coal to the surface at Peabody Energy's Gateway Mine near Coulterville, Illinois, in March 2006. Seth Perlman/AP

A lengthy, poorly tracked and at times confusing review process at the Interior Department is hampering the ability of some states and tribes to clean up abandoned and polluting coal mining sites, according to a new federal watchdog report.

A Government Accountability Office report released Thursday identified a number of challenges plaguing an Interior office tasked with signing off on millions of dollars for states and tribes to clean up old, hazardous coal mining sites mine sites, from inadequate funding to staffing woes.

The report also laid out a number of recommendations for how the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, can improve the process, including improving data tracking, clarifying the role of staff and providing more guidance to states and tribes. OSMRE agreed to take those steps.


The report from Cardell Johnson, director of the natural resource and environment team at GAO, takes a deep dive into the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization program, or AMLER, which aims to help communities impacted by abandoned land mines.

OSMRE, created under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, oversees programs to help control the environmental effects of surface coal mining operations. States and tribes apply annually for funding through the reclamation program, which relies on appropriations and has received about $1 billion in congressionally approved money since fiscal 2016, according to the report. OSMRE is tasked with approving projects in six Appalachian states and tribal nations, including the Crow Tribe, the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation.

Through interviews and site-visits, GAO found that the length of federal reviews at OSMRE have prompted some states to abandon their proposals.

Officials in Virginia, for example, told the federal watchdog that OSMRE took more than 1,100 days to review a project proposal. “Ultimately, the applicant withdrew it. As a result, $1.6 million was tied up with that project and could not be awarded to other projects during that period, according to Virginia officials,” Johnson wrote. “Time frames to review and approve project proposals may vary in part due to projects’ complexity, according to program officials.”

According to the report, officials from another state, which was not identified, told GAO that the vetting process took more than 500 days in one case, with little or no feedback from the federal agency. “In contrast, it took less than 30 days for OSMRE to review and approve a project that created an area for recreational use in Ohio, according to OSMRE’s 2023 AMLER report,” GAO wrote.

According to the report, OSMRE “does not systematically track time frames to review and approve projects.” Staff at regional offices do track some information but not in a uniform way, and “the information is incomplete and unreliable,” according to GAO.

What’s more, OSMRE in the fall of 2022 requested — but has not yet secured — funding for a dedicated, automated and web-based system to track projects.

GAO found numerous challenges on the state and tribal level as well.

States and tribes are also hampered by insufficient staffing, closures during the pandemic and complications about how to use the funds on indigenous lands that may not already have sewer and electricity access.

According to the report, OSMRE approved 239 projects from October 2016 through November 2022, and states and tribes have spent about 29 percent of the total AMLER appropriations.

“Organizational challenges, such as limited staff and resources remain,” Johnson wrote. “The office initially structured the program to provide states and Tribes with certain flexibilities in how they implement projects, which has sometimes led to challenges like unclear and untimely guidance, and confusion among states and Tribes.”

The report laid out four main recommendations to help streamline and clarify the process at OSMRE.

GAO called on the agency’s leadership to lay out what options states and tribes have for using funds that can’t be spent in a given grant year and provide clear and timely guidance for addressing challenges that states and tribes face. OSMRE must also do more to track information around the length of reviews and approvals in a systematic way and document the responsibilities of staff in headquarters, regional and field offices.

In a letter attached to the report, Steven Feldgus, the Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, agreed with the findings and said the agency will take action.