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Tensions rise over AML bill

A Pennsylvania congressman turned up the rhetorical heat Thursday in the debate over extending the federal government’s program to clean up abandoned coal mines.

At the same time, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was working to give the Abandoned Mine Land program another nine months of life.

Byrd won unanimous approval in the Senate Appropriations Committee to extend the coal tax that funds the AML program through June 30, 2006. Byrd attached the extension to the Interior Department’s budget bill for next fiscal year, a spokesman said. The measure now goes to the Senate floor.

Already, Byrd had successfully extended the AML tax — set to expire Sept. 30, 2004, — through the end of this month, and again through Sept. 30, 2005.

“Time never seems to be on the side of this issue, and the AML program is in danger of lapsing again,” Byrd told committee members Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., blasted an AML reauthorization plan put forth by Reps. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., and Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.

Peterson cited a U.S. Office of Surface Mining study that showed the Cubin-Rahall bill “will continue directing millions of dollars to Wyoming, despite their lack of abandoned mine problems.”

“As this discussion moves forward, we will have to decide whether the Abandoned Mine Land program is going to be used for abandoned mine reclamation, as was originally intended, or whether it will continue to be a multimillion-dollar slush fund for Wyoming,” Peterson said in a news release.

Last year, the Bush administration supported Peterson’s version of an AML extension bill.

Peterson’s comments echoed a battle between Eastern and Western coal states that has stymied efforts to extend the AML program — a battle that the Cubin-Rahall bill was aimed at ending.

The problem is that most U.S. coal production currently comes from Western states — primarily Wyoming — while the majority of abandoned mine sites are in Eastern states with a history of coal production, such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

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 coalmines that were abandoned before 1977, when the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed.

Since the program began, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund. But, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.

Wyoming, for example, spent about $90 million in AML money on roads, schools and other infrastructure projects after declaring it had finished cleaning up its abandoned mines.

Appalachian states with large numbers of retired coal miners have benefited. More than $665 million in AML interest has funded health-care benefits for retired coal miners.

The Cubin-Rahall bill would seek to stop some, but not all, of these diversions.

It would force states to “strictly adhere” to the original AML priority list, eliminate the “general welfare” clause that states — primarily Pennsylvania — have sought to use to allow funding of lower-priority projects, and force the OSM to conduct an audit of the AML project inventory.

At the same time, the Cubin-Rahall bill would give back to states like Wyoming, which promised 20 years ago that it had cleaned up its abandoned mines, millions of dollars in AML taxes the federal government has never appropriated to states. They could spend the money however they like.

Also, it would allow Wyoming and other “certified” states to continue to receive the equivalent of their share of future AML taxes. But, that money would come not from those AML taxes, but from federal mineral leases.

The Cubin-Rahall bill also would increase the amount of AML interest spent to avoid the financial collapse of the United Mine Workers retiree health-care plan.

In his bill, introduced May 26, Peterson would give Wyoming back its share of the AML taxes the state’s coal producers already have paid. But in the future, Wyoming companies would pay AML taxes and the state would not get any of the money.

In a statement, Rahall said his bill is “clearly superior, as it has generated union as well as some industry support for it, which is lacking in other proposals.

“Furthermore, the Cubin-Rahall bill bridges the differences between the Eastern and Western states, making it more politically viable,” Rahall said. “The bottom line is that we all need to get on the same page, reach common understandings, and extend this critical program.”

More on the AML program: http://wvgazette.com/section/Se

ries/Abandoned+Promises.


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