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Mine cleanup program extended

Lawmakers in Washington have quietly extended for 14 years a coal industry tax that funds the cleanup of abandoned mines.

Congress also instituted major reforms in how cleanup money is spent and ordered significant increases in reclamation money sent to states.

The legislation also included an expansion of the use of mine cleanup tax dollars to fund health-care benefits for retired coal miners and a promise of general tax money for any future deficits in the miner benefit plans.

In West Virginia, the legislation would double the state’s current mine cleanup funding to about $40 next year, according to U.S. Office of Surface Mining estimates.

Over the next dozen years, the changes promise to give the state average annual mine cleanup budgets of more than $70 million.

“This is an historic piece of legislation for West Virginia and coalfield residents throughout the nation,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., a longtime champion of the federal Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program.

“My stated goal when starting the effort to reauthorize this program several years ago was to reclaim our abandoned coal mines and abandoned coal miners,” Rahall said. “We have now achieved that goal.”

The AML extension and reform was included among a long list of amendments to a broad tax package that extended some popular tax breaks and opened certain off-shore areas of Texas to oil drilling.

Lawmakers approved the measure early Saturday morning, and President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

“Hallelujah,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who has fashioned several temporary AML extensions to keep the tax dollars flowing over the last few years.

“We have finally succeeded in giving peace of mind to families in our coalfield communities who live near old, dangerous, abandoned mine sites,” Byrd said. “This is a real victory for our coal miners, their families and our coalfield communities.”

The final version of the bill was identical to an AML measure proposed earlier this year by Pennsylvania Republican Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter. Pushing for its passage were Rahall, Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts praised the legislation for “fixing funding problems” with the union’s combined benefit fund, and extending the use of AML interest to the UMW’s 1992 and 1993 benefit plans.

“In all, the health-care benefits for over 52,000 retired miners, their spouses and their widows are secure, and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” Roberts said.

In its most sweeping provision, the new AML bill takes annual distributions of cleanup money “off budget,” meaning the amount spent won’t be subject to budget appropriators’ whims.

Instead, the bill mandates annual allocations in certain amounts, and requires the government to begin paying out tens of millions of dollars of AML taxes that were paid by the industry but continue to be held in Washington, D.C., to make the budget look more balanced.

For states like West Virginia, this change will be a huge benefit, providing major increases in annual funding as a $1.1 billion pot of state coal taxes are distributed in equal amounts over seven years.

The bill eliminates a broad “general welfare” provision that many states had used to divert AML money to reclamation and water cleanups that did not threaten public health or property. But the bill also allows such lower-priority environmental projects to continue if they are adjacent to public health and property cleanups.

Under the bill, the per-ton AML tax will be cut slightly in 2008, from 35 cents to 31.5 cents for surface-mined coal and from 15 cents to 13.5 cents for underground-mined coal.

Then, in 2013, the tax would be lowered again, to 28 cents per ton of surface-mined coal and 12 cents per ton of underground mined coal.

The bill would require states to strictly follow the AML priority list for the types of projects performed, and force OSM to review state project proposals before they are added to the program inventory.


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