In Mingo County, residents along Neds Branch have seen what happens when an abandoned mine problem gets worse.
For years, a huge coal-waste impoundment loomed on a hillside up a hollow just outside Gilbert.
In February 2003, heavy rains caused the impoundment to overflow. Runoff flooded and damaged the road out of the hollow. A dozen families were trapped.
By the time Richardson got there, there was an 80-foot notch down the front of the impoundment.
"A piece of the hillside broke off, and the middle went, and the slurry poured out," he said.
Richardson called in some contractors with heavy equipment. They got to work on what would become - eight months and $3.2 million later - the biggest emergency AML project in U.S. history.
Now, bright green grass covers the former impoundment site's carefully sculpted hills. Rock-lined ditches were placed along the gravel-and-dirt road to keep out ATV riders.
Along with impoundments, underground coal seam fires can be among the most expensive abandoned mine problems to fix.
In Centralia, Pa., federal officials gave up on putting out such a fire when the price was estimated at $663 million. Instead, the AML program spent $42 million - under direct orders from Congress - to relocate nearby residents.
Centralia and Neds Branch are from the everyday AML jobs.
In West Virginia, the average AML reclamation job runs about $150,000.
It's more like the one Richardson's crew did behind Berry Godby's house outside Chapmanville.
Up the hill from the home along Corridor G, there are two old deep mines. One night earlier this year, water that filled up one of the mines blew out of the hillside.
"It washed straight across the yard, hit the back of the garage, filled the garage, and it was up to the back window [of the house]," Richardson recalled.
In April, DEP contractors used backhoes, loaders and trucks to build a new retaining wall to control any future slides. The project will cost about $250,000.
While Congress has kept AML money bottled up in Washington, presidents from both parties have done little to help.
The first Bush administration sought huge cuts in 1992 and 1993.
Bill Clinton did not propose a major increase in funding until his 2000 financial year budget, the seventh of his eight spending plans.
In each of his first three budgets, George W. Bush proposed major reductions in AML spending.
This year, Bush called for a $53 million AML budget hike. That proposal is part of a larger plan to overhaul the entire program.
At the same time, states complain that the cost to reclaim mine sites has skyrocketed.
"Unaddressed sites tend to get worse over time, thus increasing reclamation costs," said Steve Hohmann, director of Kentucky's AML program. "Inflation exacerbates these costs. The longer the reclamation is postponed, the les reclamation will be accomplished."
A deadly problem
Even AML projects that seem inexpensive can be trouble if they are not reclaimed.
In the last five years, more than 160 people across the country have died in abandoned mines.
No federal agency investigates these deaths fully. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration keeps a list - cobbled together from newspaper articles and other media reports - on its Web site.
In May 2003, OSM published a study that said 1.2 million Americans live within a half mile of a dangerous abandoned mine site.
"These are not merely 'ugly landscapes' that need to be made more attractive," said OSM Director Jeff Jarrett. "These are serious, life-threatening, high-priority hazards."
Most of the fatal accidents are drownings. Water collects in mine shafts and open pits companies left behind. People fall in and drown. Others use open pits as swimming holes, and drown when they can't climb out because the walls are sheer rock.
Other deaths involve ATV accidents or falls into vertical mine shafts that can be hundreds of feet deep.
More than a decade ago, in 1990, the AML program helped avoid a near-disaster on the playground of Kimball Elementary School in McDowell County.
The school's maintenance guy was mowing the law, and his mower cut off, Richardson recalled.
"He bent down to check it, and he fell over," Richardson said.
DEP investigators found that blackdamp - a toxic mix of gases that forms in underground mines - was seeping out of an abandoned portal adjacent to the playground.
The state spent about $170,000 to seal the portals.
"If the kids had been outside, and gotten into that, it would have been bad," Richardson said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.