|CHN graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.|
The shortage is most troublesome in Appalachia, where coal production has dropped 50 percent in the past decade. Indiana also looks dicey. It and some Appalachian states (Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia) only require companies to have a fraction of the cost of reclaiming their mines on hand because of a practice called "bond pooling," to which all the mining companies contribute to spread their risk. That might be enough to cover reclamation costs if only a few mines close without being reclaimed, but many have shuttered in recent years. If enough companies declare bankruptcy without adequate reclamation funds, taxpayers might have to foot the bill or risk dealing with the environmental and health hazards triggered by the untreated mines.
"In 2015-16, companies accounting for nearly half of the coal production in the U.S. went into some form of bankruptcy," Olalde reports. "They have since emerged from that nadir, but the massive, sudden collapse highlights the problem of sharing risk among companies that all produce the same atrophying commodity." Scott Simonton, coordinator of the environmental science program at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., told Olalde: "It just seems to be a very fragile system. That’s the problem. It’s a system that’s designed for small failures."