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AML program running out of time

In 11 days, the federal coal tax that funds the cleanup of abandoned mines is set to expire.

Across the coalfields, thousands of acres of abandoned sites remain unreclaimed. If the tax dies, many of them will probably never be cleaned up.

As the Sept. 30 deadline approaches, lawmakers, environmental and labor groups and industry lobbyists are scrambling to somehow keep the program alive.

Various proposals are still being floated to extend and reform the entire Abandoned Mine Land program.

The Bush administration has proposed a last-minute plan to keep part of the tax — the part that funds health-care benefits for retired miners — going.

But the more likely outcome, in the short term, at least, seems to be passage of an extension of one year or slightly less.

Last week, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., got such a proposal rolling. The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to attach a nine-month extension to next year’s Interior Department budget bill.

“Who knows what form it will ultimately take. We don’t know,” said Louise Dunlap, a lobbyist for the Citizens Coal Council. “But now, an extension is officially part of a mechanism that has a chance of passing.”

Byrd won approval for his extension after Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., joined in his amendment.

In a statement, Byrd said that his amendment was simply “a safety net” to keep the program going until a more comprehensive extension bill could be worked out.

“Time is running short,” Byrd said. “My amendment is a critical backstop because we cannot sit idly by and let this program lapse.”

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 operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.

But, as The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles last month, 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 miners, the clean up of other industries’ messes, and lower-priority abandoned coal sites that do not pose health or safety threats.

Also, across the coalfields, abandoned coal mines have gone unreclaimed because Congress has squirreled away nearly $1.7 billion of AML money to help 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 to clean up sites in West Virginia and other Appalachian states.

Twenty years ago, Wyoming started using its AML money to build schools, hospitals and roads, after promising it had cleaned up all of its abandoned mines. Now, though, state officials say that they have discovered millions of dollars of reclamation needs they didn’t notice before.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has joined with Rep. Barbara Cubin, D-Wyo., on a plan that would give Wyoming more money from federal mineral leases instead.

Also, the Rahall-Cubin plan, unlike the Bush proposal, would require states to more closely follow the original AML goals of putting high-priority health-and-safety cleanups first.

Last week, the National Mining Association tried to downplay the urgency of extending the AML program.

In a news release, the industry group declared “there is no immediate crisis in AML funding.”

The mining association noted that the AML fund currently has an unspent balance of nearly $1.7 billion. The group said that is enough for the federal Office of Surface Mining to continue the annual AML spending of $190 million for eight years.

But Jeff Jarrett, director of OSM, said that current law ties his agency’s hands on how the $1.7 billion is spent.

Much of the money, Jarrett said, is required to be sent back to the states where it was generated — whether those states have more abandoned mines to reclaim or not.

OSM estimates that, under the current funding scheme, the states with the most need for AML cleanups — Pennsylvania and West Virginia — would see their annual funding cut in half by 2012 if the tax were not renewed.

Currently, West Virginia gets about $21 million a year in AML money. By 2012, it would receive only $11.6 million if the tax is not renewed, OSM projects.

“We believe that, at the end of the day, Congress needs to act on a permanent fix to the AML program,” Jarrett said last week. “We need a long-term extension, and we need fundamental change to the program.”

Most observers, though, say that it seems highly unlikely that a complete overhaul of the AML program is likely before the end of the month.

“To reach that goal, the bill would have to make it through a Senate committee, through the Senate, through the House committee without a single change, through the House of Representatives without a single change, and then [be] signed into law before the end of September,” Byrd said last week. “While not impossible, it is highly, highly unlikely.”

Longtime AML supporters are especially concerned that, if the tax expires it might never be reinstated. Renewing an existing tax, they say, is much easier than enacting what would be viewed as a new one.

Nearly a decade ago, the Congress let lapse a tax on crude oil and some chemicals that funded the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. Today, that program is underfunded, is far behind schedule in cleaning up sites, and relies more and more on general revenue money.

“Obviously, the major concern is that it will go the way of Superfund,” said Jim Zoia, a top Rahall aide and Democratic staff director for the House Resources Committee.

AML supporters are also upset with the Bush administration, saying that the White House has not made renewal of AML enough of a priority.

In his first three budgets, President Bush proposed major cuts in AML spending. OSM did not propose a reauthorization plan until earlier this year.

Jarrett said last week that the Bush administration has not yet taken a position on Byrd’s short-term extension plan.

“I don’t know what the administration position on that is,” Jarrett said. “We’ve never talked about that.”

Adding to the complexity of the current AML debate is the fact that the United Mine Workers’ retiree health-care plan relies on AML fund interest to keep it solvent.

Under the law, OSM is required to continue the AML tax beyond Sept. 30 — but only at the level needed to provided adequate interest for an annual transfer to the UMW health-care plan.

Last week, OSM proposed a rule to cut the tax by about 75 percent to continue a $69 million annual transfer.

But UMW officials say that money won’t be enough.

Federal law allows AML interest to be used only for the benefits of so-called “orphaned miners,” retirees whose last employer has gone out of business.

Unlike the Bush proposal, the Rahall-Cubin bill would remove this restriction. AML interest could be used to offset any potential deficit in the UMW health-care plan.

Jarrett said he wasn’t sure why language similar to the Rahall-Cubin proposal was not part of the administration’s legislation.

“We at OSM do not have sufficient knowledge or the responsibility to fix a health-care program,” Jarrett said. “That has nothing to do with our [surface mining act] program.”

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


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