Associated Press – PRESTON COUNTY, W.Va. — An underground coal mine fire burns beneath a sprawling hillside in West Virginia, the pale, acrid smoke rising from gashes in the scarred, muddy earth only a stone’s throw from some houses.
The fire, which may have started with arson, lightning or a forest fire, smoldered for several years before bursting into flames last July in rural Preston County. The growing blaze moved the mine to the top of a list of thousands of problem decades-old coal sites in West Virginia awaiting cleanup and vying for limited federal funds.
State officials say $4.5 billion worth of work remains at more than 3,300 sites abandoned by coal companies before 1977, when Congress passed a law establishing a national fund for old cleanups. That program was part of an effort to heal the state from the ravages of an industry that once dominated its economy but has fallen on hard times.
“West Virginia is right at the top for needs,” said Chuck Williams, head of Alabama’s efforts and past president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs. He said Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia — all states with a mining history that extends back two centuries — account for the lion’s share of unfinished work among the 28 states and Indian tribes in the program.
Despite being one of the most affected, federal officials have only one-third of West Virginia’s proposed cleanup costs on their $7 billion national list of high-priority work. The sites include old mines that leak acidic water into streams and kill wildlife and dangerous holes that attract children. Tunnels and caverns beneath homes also need to be shored up and new water lines are needed where wells are polluted.
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