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Trout Unlimited advocates renewal of mine cleanup fund

The national conservation group Trout Unlimited on Tuesday urged Congress to approve a long-term extension of the tax that funds the cleanup of abandoned coal mines.

“The job of cleaning up the coalfields simply isn’t done, so we still very much need the fund,” Carol Moore, a TU member from Coal Creek, Tenn., said during a Washington, D.C., news conference.

At the same time, lawmakers on Tuesday moved to finalize another short-term fix that would reauthorize the tax through the end of September.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., inserted that extension into a budget bill last month, and won conference committee approval of it Tuesday.

“The families living in the coalfield communities of West Virginia and throughout America should not live in constant limbo, unsure whether the funding will be available to repair and restore the abandoned mine sites near their homes,” Byrd said.

“I have done what I can to extend this program for a year,” Byrd added. “But the clock is ticking, and it is time for the rest of Congress to come through for these families.”

Last year, Byrd pushed through legislation that extended the AML tax from Sept. 30, 2004, through June 30, 2005. At the time, Byrd said he hoped that the additional nine months would give lawmakers time to work out a long-term extension.

But by mid-April, no comprehensive AML bills had been introduced in this year’s Congress. And though negotiations are said to be continuing, little progress toward a longer reauthorization has been reported.

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 be used 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 last 20 years to regrade 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 Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles last year, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to low-priority cleanups, other projects, or health-care benefits for retired coal miners.

In a report released at the National Press Club, Trout Unlimited said that the future of the AML program remains “tenuous.”

“Only a long-term reauthorization of the fund will provide the stable foundation on which coalfield communities can base sustained improvements,” the group said.

But the group focused its concerns on acid mine drainage and on keeping watershed cleanup projects eligible for AML funding.

Trout Unlimited said it opposes language that would require states to more closely follow the original priority list for AML spending.

Under this priority list, states were to clean up abandoned mines that posed serious health-and-safety dangers first and then focus on environmental degradation.

Trout Unlimited also supports keeping the “general welfare” provision of the priority list, which states have used to funnel millions of dollars to lower-priority environmental cleanups.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has proposed legislation to eliminate these loopholes and require states to clean up the most dangerous AML sites first.

In its report, Trout Unlimited said, “the efforts of states to best decide how to attend to abandoned coal mine problems within their boundaries should not be unduly restricted by the Congress.

“Governors are better suited to meet the needs of their citizens, and should be allowed to set priorities for health, human safety and restoration,” the report said.

During a House hearing last year, Rahall said the goal was not to eliminate the use of AML money for watershed cleanups. But safety cleanups must come first, he said.

“Could we please leave some money to address the open pits that swallow our teenagers, to mitigate landslides that threaten grandma’s house, and to combat subsidence that may engulf an entire community?” Rahall asked. “I mean, is that asking too much?”


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