Washington’s John Henry Mine last produced coal in 1999 and has yet to be fully cleaned up.
This story was published in partnership with High Country News and 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.