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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The cleanup and reclaiming of coal mines in seven Appalachian states will cost billions, and Kentucky and West Virginia have the largest bills coming due, according to an environmental group’s new report.

Total reclamation liability for the two states is between $4.1 billion and $5.8 billion, with less than half of that covered by existing bonds, according to estimates in the report by Appalachian Voices.

Pennsylvania’s estimated liability is roughly identical to Kentucky’s, at $1.9 billion to $2.25 billion, although it has an advantage in that up to two-thirds of that liability is covered by bonds.

Reclamation of coal sites typically includes improving the environment and reversing the damages of surface and underground mining.

As the coal mining industry has declined over the past decade, corporate bankruptcies have increased, and “large-scale mine abandonment by several companies” has occurred in Kentucky and West Virginia, it said.

“As more coal companies declare bankruptcy, fewer companies remain to take over mines, so the number of companies forfeiting reclamation bonds and deserting their cleanup responsibilities will only increase,” the report said.

The report, titled “Repairing the Damage: The Costs of Delaying Reclamation at Modern-Era Mines,” draws attention to the funding gap, which could cause environmental damage, water contamination and pose safety hazards if mines aren’t cleaned up. The report was discussed during an online presentation Wednesday.

Erin Savage, the primary author of the report, said during the presentation that the lack of reclamation can be a burden and hazard to coal communities, The Herald-Leader reported.

“We need to say it as much as we can: This is not just environmental; this is a public safety problem,” Savage said.

The seven states, which also include Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia, have about 633,000 acres in need of reclamation. Kentucky and West Virginia have about 400,000 of those acres, the report said.

But an opportunity exists in the potential for thousands of reclamation jobs, the report said. The seven states have lost about 27,000 coal mining jobs over the past decade.

“Addressing the reclamation backlog could put a substantial number of people back to work,” the report said.

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