Obama's proposals to reform the AML program were dead on arrival at Congress during the president's first term, in large part because or opposition from Wyoming' the nation's largest coal producer. The administration proposal goes against a compromise forged in 2008 that extended the coal production tax that funds AML cleanups. That legislation instituted some program reforms, but also allowed states that have completed their coal cleanups to continue using the money for other things.
In 2004, a Gazette series revealed that more than $1.3 billion of AML money had been funneled to other purposes, including reclamation of non-coal mines, road construction, and even college campus expansions. The largest diversion was to fund the troubled United Mine Workers retiree health-care plan.
Under the 1977 surface mining law, coal operators nationwide pay a per-ton tax that funds the reclamation of mine sites that were abandoned before the federal strip-mine law was passed.
Also under the law, states that cleaned up all of their abandoned mines were to be "certified" as having done so. Theoretically, those states would then receive less money, and be able to use it for broader purposes. But some states that finished all of their cleanups were never formally certified. And others that were certified -- such as Wyoming -- continued to receive huge sums of AML money that they spent on projects that had nothing to do with coal.
Through the 2006 reauthorization legislation, states like Wyoming lost an automatic 50 percent of the future AML taxes paid by their coal industries. But, they continued to receive payments from their past AML taxes, and were given more leeway to spend the money however they wanted.
The 2006 legislation also cut the per-ton AML tax from 35 cents per ton to 31.5 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and from 15 to 13.5 cents for underground mined coal.
Last year, legislation tucked into a federal transportation bill prohibited Wyoming from getting more than $15 million a year in AML money, a move toward the sort of reform the Obama administration has proposed.
In their new budget proposal, administration officials again recommend replacing current production-based AML distribution formulas with an advisory council that would allocate money based on a review of cleanup projects in each state.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.