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Byrd wins abandoned mines extension

WASHINGTON — Negotiations broke down between Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin and members from Eastern states over abandoned mine cleanup language this week, forcing Cubin to drop her plan to attach the mine legislation to the pending energy bill.

At the same time, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., won approval of language to extend the federal Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program for another nine months.

On Tuesday evening, lawmakers included Byrd’s amendment — continuing the coal tax that funds abandoned mine cleanups through June 30, 2006 — in next year’s budget bill for the Interior Department.

The move clears the way for final approval by Congress and the White House.

“It is my hope that this nine-month extension will finally give Congress the time and the opportunity to put aside regional differences and reach an agreement to accomplish the top priority of this program — namely, reclaiming the hundreds of abandoned mine sites across the country,” Byrd said.

“I know that the people living in the coalfields in West Virginia are getting impatient,” Byrd said. “Like me, they want certainty in the AML program. Like me, they want these mine sites cleaned up.”

Cubin, a Wyoming Republican, said last week that she hoped to use her clout as a member of the House-Senate energy conference to attach the language, which would reauthorize a 1977 law that charges coal producers a per-ton fee to fund abandoned mine cleanup.

She said Tuesday that she decided not to offer the amendment “after it became clear that a handful of Eastern lawmakers would hold up the proposal if it were formally introduced.’’

Disagreement between Wyoming and Eastern states has been a major obstacle to passage of the legislation.

The two regions are battling over the bill because Wyoming, which now produces more coal than any other state, is the biggest contributor to the federal cleanup fund and gets the most money from it. But veteran mining states in the East like Pennsylvania have declining coal production and the most abandoned mine land.

Republican Rep. John Peterson of Pennsylvania has introduced legislation that would direct more funding to states with the most abandoned land, while Cubin’s bill would continue to steer funds to Wyoming.

The two worked to find a compromise before the energy bill conference was finished, but a spokesman for Peterson said Tuesday that they did not come to agreement.

Not all Eastern members have opposed Cubin’s bill. Some members of Congress from Appalachian states, including Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., are supporting it because of language that would expand the guarantee of health care benefits to thousands more retired miners from the United Mine Workers of America who worked for companies that no longer exist.

West Virginia, which is the nation’s second largest coal producer, has a backlog of about 733 unreclaimed coal mine sites that pose a threat to the health, safety or general welfare of nearby residents. Reclamation of those sites is expected to cost about $740 million.

Cubin said she will continue to look for ways to get her legislation considered.

“There are several legislative vehicles on the horizon that we are considering and we’ll continue to work on the bill just as we have before,’’ Cubin said.

Congress has approved several short-term extensions for the law, which is now set to expire Sept. 30.


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