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Price of abandoned mine cleanups never clear

In 1986, experts from the National Academy of Sciences conducted a broad review of the federal program to clean up abandoned coal mines.

It was halfway through the 15-year program’s original life. Lawmakers wanted to know how it was doing.

At the time, things sounded pretty good. By the time the Abandoned Mine Land program was set to expire in 1992, the study found, most of the nation’s hazardous mines would be reclaimed.

That 1992 deadline came and went.

The AML program was extended twice, first to 1995 and then through next month.

Now, state and federal reclamation officials say that they need another dozen years or more to get the job done.

At least $8.7 billion of reclamation work waits for federal funding. That figure includes both the most pressing sites — those that pose health and safety threats — and lower priority jobs that harm the environment.

If Congress does not reauthorize the AML tax, states will end up at least $1.8 billion short of what they need to clean up sites that threaten public health and safety, state and federal officials say.

The AML fund has an unspent balance of more than $1.6 billion. But, that’s not nearly enough to pay for the more than $3 billion of dangerous highwalls, gob piles, slurry impoundments and polluted water supplies that remain.

“These are problems that are just going to get worse,” said Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, which lobbies for mining states.

On top of that, tens of billions more are needed to clean up sites that are polluting hills and streams, but not threatening health and safety.

No one really knows how much those projects will cost, and government officials readily admit that they may never be cleaned up.

“We don’t know what the total cost of the program is,” said Jeff Jarrett, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining. “By and large, it’s not inventoried.”

Almost from the start, policy-makers knew that the AML program was not being given enough money to do its job. Also from the beginning, the amount needed seemed to be a moving target.

When lawmakers passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, the House and Senate could not agree on a price tag.

The House said $7 billion to $10 billion. The Senate preferred a range from $6 billion to $25 billion. Neither chamber chose to simply cite the $24 billion reported in a then-recent Bureau of Mines study.

Once the law was passed, OSM put together an initial inventory that identified 1,400 abandoned sites with an estimated reclamation cost of about $700 million. Everyone knew that number was not accurate. States continued to add more sites to the inventory.

In 1984, OSM did an extensive study and “scrubbed” the inventory of $2.9 billion of projects that allegedly did not qualify.

Still, states and the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that the inventory was not accurate. States complained that different OSM field offices had different rules for which projects states could list. OSM tightened some guidelines for listing sites, but not all field offices went back and applied those new rules to eliminate sites that were improperly listed.

In 1985, then-OSM Director Jed Christensen told Congress his agency would need $33 billion to clean up all of the nation’s abandoned mines. But, Christensen said, the AML tax would raise only $3 billion through 1992 — enough to fix just 10 percent of the problems.

In a 1986 report, the Congressional Research Service warned that OSM’s “estimated insufficiency of the fund is probably an understatement.”

That report projected that Congress would need to increase the AML tax significantly — from 35 cents per ton to $2.86 per ton of surface mined coal — to address the problem within the original time limit.

“This is an additional cost that the industry would be extremely unwilling to bear, particularly that segment of the industry competing in the world market and now selling at the margin,” the report said. “Conversely, however, a program extension would create a considerable number of reclamation jobs in regions that have experienced the greatest impact of the shift to western coal.”

A decade later, in 1997, the congressional researchers again warned that the fund was at least $20 billion short — and probably much more than that.

OSM blamed the uncertainty on lack of data on and problems estimating the reclamation costs for long-term environmental cleanups like acid mine drainage.

Another problem, though, is that the inventory really is a moving target. Abandoned mine problems get worse over time. Aging timbers in underground mines collapse, causing new subsidence. Residential areas expand, moving closer to what were once isolated highwalls or open portals.

“The state and tribes are finding new high priority problems each year,” said Steve Hohmann, director of Kentucky’s state AML program. “This underscores the need for continual inventory updates, as well as constant vigilance to protect citizens.”

In an unpublished 1990 study, OSM said it just didn’t have a good estimate of the potential costs. What was clear, the agency said, was that the AML tax would not raise enough money.

“Much of the lands and waters adversely affected by past coal mining will not have been reclaimed by the time all this money has been expended,” OSM said.

Numerous reports have also blamed OSM for problems in estimating the size of the AML problem.

Last year, for example, the Interior Department Inspector General reported that it found OSM inventory numbers for completed projects and unreclaimed sites were off by more than 20 percent.

“This diminishes its usefulness for identifying the highest priority sites for funding, forecasting future reclamation needs, and measuring performance,” the September 2003 report said.

In August 1997, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted that “hundreds of thousands of acres” of unreclaimed sites mysteriously disappeared from OSM’s inventory between 1996 and 1997.

PEER also said that OSM “deliberately confuses and disguises the scope” of the AML problem.

“There is an internal conflict over whether to exaggerate the amount of progress OSM and the states have made, or to display the still staggering numbers of unfinished sites so that Congress will extend OSM’s fee levying capability past the year 2004,” the group said in its report.

Last year, the National Mining Association told lawmakers that the rosy picture painted by the 1986 National Academy of Sciences report was also part of the problem.

States and OSM, the industry group said, argued that if all high-priority projects would be completed by 1992, there was no reason to not fund some low-priority projects.

So, while money was funneled to other projects, the inventory of high-priority AML cleanups grew.

David Finkenbinder, a mining association lobbyist, told Congress that, since 1998, $2 in needed reclamation are added to the AML inventory for every dollar of health and safety threats that are cleaned up.

“At the time of the mid-term review of the program, more than ample funds appeared to be available to address not only the high-priority coal inventory, but the other priorities as well,” Finkenbinder said.

“Since then, it appears that things have actually regressed,” he said. “After $4.4 billion in appropriations from the AML fund, only $1.66 billion of the high-priority coal inventory have been reclaimed.”

The problem, Finkenbinder said, it not a lack of coal industry tax dollars. Instead, he said, it is misuse of those dollars.

“There is no overarching requirement that funds be directed toward the high-priority coal inventory,” he said.

Since 2001, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has sponsored legislation to try to extend the AML program again.

Rahall also wants to tighten spending restrictions, so that states spend money on the most pressing problems. But, his legislation is aimed at raising enough money for health and safety projects — not the tens of billions needed for additional environmental cleanups.

“We never promised a gravy train,” Rahall told Coal Age magazine in a 2002 interview. “The program has done much good, so it will continue to do so,” Rahall said. “But at some point, it does have to come to a logical conclusion.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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