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Obama moves to refocus mine cleanup funds

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Read more about the AML program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration is bringing back its proposal to stop sending money intended for cleaning up abandoned coal mines to states that have already reclaimed all of their old mine sites.

Interior Department officials included the proposal in their 2012 financial year budget recommendations for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

"This proposal allows mandatory funding to be focused on the highest-priority abandoned coal mine sites to eliminate public health and environmental hazards across the nation," said OSM Director Joe Pizarchik.

President Obama asked Congress to cut OSM's overall budget for the year beginning Oct. 1 by more than 10 percent, to $146 million.

Total spending on the Abandoned Mine Land program would be cut from $35.5 million to $27.4 million. OSM's budget for regulation of active mining would also be cut, from about $127 million to about $118 million.

Obama proposed to shift some OSM funding, so that spending for oversight of state mining regulators would jump by more than 44 percent, to $12.4 million.

"This will continue our efforts in fulfilling the administration's commitment to significantly reduce the harmful environmental impacts of coal mining in Appalachia and nationwide," said OSM spokesman Christopher Holmes.

On the AML program, Obama proposed similar changes last year and in 2009, but they went nowhere. The idea was considered dead on arrival at Congress, where it was opposed by elected officials from Wyoming, the nation's largest coal producer.

Under the Obama proposal, states like Wyoming that have "certified" that they have reclaimed all of their abandoned coal mines would no longer continue to receive money from the AML program. Currently, those states receive large allotments -- up to $186 million annually -- of AML funding, which they use for other purposes.

The money for AML comes from coal production taxes, and the original AML law promises states that they would get back half of the money generated within their borders, regardless of whether it was needed for abandoned mine reclamation work.

Under the proposal, OSM would establish an advisory council to review and rank reclamation projects proposed by states and other parties, and recommend distribution of the funds to the highest priority sites.

The Obama proposal would likely benefit states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which continue to have large inventories of abandoned mines that need cleaned up, but don't produce nearly as much coal as Wyoming.

Eliminating the payments to certified AML states was recommended in December by the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which was co-chaired by Alan Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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