Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Rep. Shontel Brown
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, third from left, walks with Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown, third from right. Credit: Secretary Deb Haaland / Twitter

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland got out into the field last week to visit abandoned mine and oil well sites in Ohio and to talk with labor leaders about how federal infrastructure work can promote justice and jobs.

“These historic investments are all part of the administration’s all-of-government approach to support communities as they address the lingering impacts of extractive industries in transition to a clean energy future,” Haaland said at the March 4 tour stop at the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor in Cleveland.

“A lot of under-represented communities are exactly that: under-represented,” Haaland said. “They haven’t had a choice where the federal government puts funds.” Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, “we want to make sure that 40% of those investments go to those communities, because everybody deserves to have an opportunity in this country.”

Last month the Department of the Interior announced nearly $725 million in funding for abandoned mine land reclamation under the law. Haaland and White House advisor Mitch Landrieu announced an additional $144 million in funding during the Cleveland tour stop. 

Of those allotments, Ohio is eligible for more than $50 million, if state officials apply for the funds.

“The reality is that legacy pollution continues to pollute too many of our waterways and neighborhoods, and we must not look away any longer,” Haaland said. “Right here in Ohio is where we can make a major difference.”

Before and after cleanup

Earlier in the day, she and Landrieu visited three former mine sites near Mineral City, a rural area roughly 20 miles south of Canton. One site presented a “before” picture of hazardous highwalls, pit impoundments and uncontrolled mine drainage. Two other stops showed how different sites can look after cleanup and reclamation for community use.

“Eastern Ohio has the chance to look a lot different in ten years, let alone in 15 years,” said Marissa Lautzenheiser, who grew up in the area and met with Haaland and Landrieu during their site visits. She is northern programs coordinator for Rural Action, which works on environmental justice and sustainable development for Appalachian Ohio.

The Dessecker project won a national award in 2019 and the area can now be enjoyed as part of a scouting camp, she said.

Ongoing treatment at the Huff Run-Farr project removes about 70% of the acidity and iron content from the runoff from a mine area that dates back to the early 1900s. Fish diversity at the mouth of Huff Run has increased from one species in 1997 to 27 species in 2020, Lautzenheiser noted.

While fish are benefiting from reclamation, Landrieu noted that the main goal of the work is to help people.

“We had an opportunity to talk to a number of gentlemen that have basically given their lives to making sure that the country had energy and have felt left behind,” in some cases for two generations, Landrieu said. “It was the first time that they felt heard in a very long time.”

Funding from the infrastructure bill can help large portions of eastern Ohio so they can rebuild “lost generational wealth” they could have had if coal companies had fairly compensated people for environmental harm and been required to properly clean up sites the first time, Lautzenheiser explained. Property values would have been substantially higher now. And communities would have been better able “to build generational wealth that is so tied up in property in the United States,” she said.

Lautzenheiser agreed that the meeting with federal officials was helpful. However, she hopes guidelines for program funding will let states put some of the money in trust for future site work, instead of requiring that it all be spent right away.

Treatment systems like the Huff Run-Farr project require periodic cleanout and other maintenance, she explained. Unless funds for those projects are set aside, states may forgo them and instead focus only on one-and-done cleanups, such as the Dessecker project.

Haaland and others also visited an orphaned oil and gas well site in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And they talked about labor needs for mine land and well projects and other planned infrastructure investments with Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga and other union representatives.

The federal infrastructure law “is a jobs bill. It’s an environmental bill. It’s an economic justice bill. It’s an equity bill,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who attended the labor roundtable in Cleveland with Haaland, Landrieu, Burga, Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), and others. 

Unions have been working to “scale up their apprentice programs,” Sherrod Brown said. “They are increasingly bringing women and people of color into their employment programs.”

“Folks want to get this right, and they are asking for our help, for labor’s help,” said roundtable attendee Lee Geisse, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1046 and Ohio regional program manager for the BlueGreen Alliance. “They want our input on the front end. It was just refreshing.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.