The feds tried to make an example of a small Washington coal mine. It didn’t work.

The John Henry Mine last produced coal in 1999 and has yet to be fully reclaimed.

 

Though the small mine has been inactive for 20 years, John Henry Mine is still considered idle and not required to be reclaimed.

This story was produced in collaboration with High Country News, The Center for Public Integrity and the Ohio Valley ReSource.

For the last two decades, one of the West’s smallest coal mines has sat inactive, neither producing the “black diamonds” the nearby town is named for, nor finishing federally required cleanup. Located about 20 miles east of Puget Sound, the site still has two open coal pits and four piles of mine waste. “It’s been 20 years and not much has happened,” said Black Diamond Mayor Carol Benson. “The town is on record as wanting it reclaimed.”

This 480-acre project, far from coal country, has played an outsized part in the federal government’s attempts to deal with mines that sit idle for extended stretches of time. 

Sometimes known as “zombie mines,” such projects have long been a focus of federal regulators who have tried to strengthen standards for cleaning up inactive mines. 

In the most recent reform attempt, in 2011, the John Henry Mine provided federal officials a perfect example of the need for better regulation. They knew the mine well; many states have regulatory regimes that surpass federal standards, but Washington lacks a state-level mining agency, so the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) is responsible. If the federal rulemaking attempt had succeeded — it was torpedoed by the Trump administration — federal regulators could have addressed concerns about coal mines idling for years with minimal prospects of ever reopening.

A report put together in 2010 by a team at OSMRE laid out the shortcomings of the existing federal regulations, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Regulators found that under existing federal standards, mine operators need only minimal justification for halting mining. The operator does not have to report what reserves remain or prove that the mine is in regulatory compliance, and there is no re-evaluation of the owner’s financial ability to cover reclamation costs. And, crucially, the existing regulations lack a time limit for a mine’s inactivity or a mechanism for ending that idle status and thus activating the owner’s obligation to clean up the site. 

Even before OMSRE outlined the problems with unclear regulations, it had tried to get the John Henry to stop delaying cleanup. The project, which had been a thorn in regulators’ sides for years, fit many of the loopholes mentioned in the report. “Significant effort” had been expended, the report said, trying to force the mining company, Pacific Coast Coal Co. (PCCC), to end its temporarily idled status.

In 2009, OSMRE finally ordered the mine to stop delaying reclamation. PCCC challenged this, arguing that it had more coal to dig. “It isn’t clear in the regulations,” how long you can leave a mine idled, said David Morris, PCCC’s general manager since the 1980s. “You can put it in idle mine status and leave it there.” But Interior Department Appeals Court Judge Robert G. Holt ruled against the company, saying that while there exists no regulation that explicitly requires reclamation, even after an extensive period of time, temporary cessation does not allow companies to indefinitely postpone reclamation. PCCC, he wrote, “has not mined coal for ten years and has shown no present ability to resume mining or to sell coal.”

Holt’s ruling provided an important legal basis for the proposed rule to set stronger timelines for reclamation, said Joe Pizarchik, OSMRE’s director under the Obama administration. “It was a court saying that 10 years was not ‘temporary’ cessation of operations,” he said. The ruling thus allowed OSMRE to argue that it was not overreaching in crafting minimal standards for idled mines. 

Pizarchik said the agency was keen to implement a stronger idled-mine rule but lacked the staff and budget. During this period, the agency was busy writing regulations on mountaintop removal mining, which eventually became the Stream Protection Rule. In the end, both the Stream Protection Rule and the yet-to-be-finalized mine-idling rule fell victim to the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda.

In King County, Washington, the small town of Black Diamond has pushed for John Henry Mine to be cleaned up.

Today, the John Henry Mine looks much as it did in 1999, when coal last came from its open pits. Despite the court decision, reclamation work stalled, thanks to years of wrangling over permits and an environmental impact statement. PCCC attempted to resume mining, but — like other companies in the tanking coal industry — could not find a market. The company began final reclamation in May, according to Morris, who blames federal regulators for not allowing the mine to reopen.

With Seattle’s growing population spilling into Black Diamond, the small town is keen to see the mine reclaimed. The site is in the process of being restored to forests and wetlands. If all goes as planned, one of the pits will become a lake, another will be backfilled from refuse piles onsite, and the open ponds of mine sediment will be filled and reclaimed. 

Alyssa Barton of Puget Soundkeeper, a nonprofit that focuses on area watershed protection, said she is cautiously hopeful the site will be restored at last. “There was a pattern of delay,” she said, “and we want to make sure (the site) gets cleaned up and maybe changes ownership, if that’s feasible, so that it becomes a park or something and never can be used for mining again.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.