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Rahall reintroduces bill to clean up abandoned mines

Rep. Nick J. Rahall has reintroduced his version of a bill to extend and reform the nation’s program to clean up abandoned coal mines.

The West Virginia Democrat again proposed the 15-year extension with Rep. Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican who is chairwoman of a key House subcommittee that must approve the legislation.

Their bill, introduced Wednesday is the first legislation this session of Congress to address long-term plans for the Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program.

The Bush administration has said that it supports continuing the mine reclamation program, but declined this year to reintroduce its own extension plan.

As with previous Cubin-Rahall bills, the new legislation would reduce by 20 percent, but extend through 2020, coal industry taxes that fund the program.

Also in this year’s bill, Rahall and Cubin propose to expand the use of AML money to cure financial problems in health-care plans that cover retired United Mine Workers members.

The bill (HR1600) would funnel interest on the $1.5 billion AML trust fund not only to the UMW’s Combined Benefit Fund, but also to two other union health-care plans currently paid for by the nation’s largest coal producers.

Estimates of the annual cost of those transfers were not immediately available Thursday afternoon.

Rahall said that the UMW funds need the money to combat financial woes caused by a rash of coal and steel industry bankruptcies.

“This legislation also seeks to deal in a comprehensive fashion with the problems which have been plaguing the coal miner health-care program,” Rahall said. “We must also keep faith with those retired coal miners and their dependents covered by them.”

Since 1996, about $665 million in AML interest has been used to pay for health-care benefits for retired UMW miners and their families.

Rahall initially tapped into the AML fund to bail out the UMW pensioners’ health-care plan after then-President George H.W. Bush vetoed a separate coal tax to fund miners’ benefits.

Cubin and Rahall introduced their latest bill just a week after Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., moved to win another temporary extension of the coal industry tax that funds the AML program.

Last year, Byrd pushed through language that extended the tax from Sept. 30, 2004, through June 30. At the time, Byrd said he hoped the additional nine months would give other lawmakers time to work out a long-term reauthorization.

But with time running out again, Byrd last week attached another three-month extension into a government-spending bill.

Under the AML 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 clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977, when the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed.

In West Virginia, more than $375 million in AML money has been spent over the past 20 years to re-grade scarred land, stabilize dangerous slides, fix hazardous highwalls and otherwise clean up abandoned mine sites.

But, measured by estimated cleanup costs, less than one-quarter of the state’s currently inventoried abandoned mine problems have been reclaimed, according to federal data.

Since the program began, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund. But, as the Gazette outlined in a series of articles last year, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.

The Cubin-Rahall bill would seek to stop most of these diversions with several reform measures, including:

Requiring the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to force states to “strictly adhere” to the original AML priority list, which ordered abandoned mines that threaten public health and safety be cleaned up first.

Eliminating the “general welfare” clause in that priority list, a loophole that some states have sought to use to allow funding of lower-priority projects.

Forcing OSM to review the existing national AML inventory to ensure that projects are properly prioritized, and making the agency approve any proposed future additions to the inventory.

Rahall said that these reforms are “intended to give the coal industry which finances this program reasonable assurances that the fees it pays will not be squandered but put to good use.”

The Cubin-Rahall bill also solves a battle between eastern and western states over the use of future AML taxes.

Western states with few abandoned mines, such as Wyoming, would continue to receive the equivalent of their promised 50-percent-share of AML taxes their coal producers pay.

The money would come not from those AML taxes, but from federal mineral leases.

That, in turn, would free up more of the AML tax money for Appalachian states such as West Virginia, which have huge numbers of pre-1977 mine sites to reclaim.

More about the Abandoned Mine Land program: http://wvgazette.com/section/Series/Abandoned+Promises.


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