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Abandoned mine cleanup in peril

U.S. Interior Department officials on Monday warned Congress that “millions of acres” of abandoned mines would go unreclaimed if lawmakers do not renew a coal industry tax.

Rebecca Watson, assistant Interior secretary, urged Congress to act and warned about consequences to Americans living near coalfield hazards if it does not.

The tax that funds the federal Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program is to expire Sept. 30.

“If the AML fee is not reauth-orized before September 30, the significant progress that has been made to date in reclaiming abandoned mine sites will soon come to an end,” Watson said in a letter to lawmakers.

“As a result, more than $2 billion worth of high-priority coal reclamation ... will remain unreclaimed, leaving millions of people who live, work and recreate in the nation’s coalfields to continue to be exposed to the many dangers these areas represent,” Watson wrote.

Congress created the AML program in 1977, when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Under the program, coal operators pay 35 cents per ton of surface-mined coal and 15 cents per ton of underground-mined coal. The money is supposed to be used to clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977.

Since the program began, coal companies have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.

But, as The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles two weeks ago, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.

Lawmakers and Interior’s Office of Surface Mining have allowed AML money to fund infrastructure projects unrelated to the coal industry, health-care benefits for retired coal miners, the clean up of other industries’ messes, and lower-priority abandoned coal sites that do not pose health or safety threats.

Across the coalfields, abandoned coal mines have also gone unreclaimed because Congress has squirreled away $1.6 billion of AML money to help make the federal budget look more balanced.

So far this year, competing proposals to extend the AML tax have stalled.

The Bush administration’s plan is going nowhere, because it does not give western states — especially Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer — any share of the future coal taxes they pay. The Bush plan would instead use coal taxes from Wyoming — which promised 20 years ago that it had reclaimed all of its abandoned mines — to clean up sites in West Virginia and other Appalachian states.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has joined with Rep. Barbara Cubin, D-Wyo., with a plan that would give Wyoming more money from federal mineral leases instead. Also, the Rahall-Cubin plan would require states to more closely follow the original AML goals of putting high-priority health-and-safety cleanups first.

Under current law, the OSM could continue to levy some sort of AML tax after Sept. 30. But, the fee could be set only at the level needed to fund the United Mine Workers’ health-care plan. No future taxes for abandoned cleanups would be allowed.

Watson, the Interior assistant secretary, outlined her concerns about the issue in a Monday letter to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

“Impacts would be felt first and hardest in the Appalachian coal states, specifically Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Virginia and Indiana, where most of the work of reclaiming abandoned coal mines is left to do,” Watson said. “These are consequences that can and should be avoided.”

Congress has been out of session since July 26, and returns Sept. 7. Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn Oct. 1.


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