WILKINSON - As he drives along W.Va. 44 in Logan County, abandoned mine inspector Mike Richardson sees problems everywhere.
Over there, a dangerous highwall looms near a school. Up ahead, a coal seam fire smolders underground.
Along almost every ridge, Richardson sees old, underground mine portals. Some drain toxic water into streams. Others turn into raging currents when it rains, causing mudslides that threaten homes or public roads.
"That was a bunch of spoil that came down and was pushing on that lady's house," Richardson says as he points out the window. "We fixed that."
But Richardson and other state mine cleanup officials don't have enough money to fix everything.
As project manager for the West Virginia's emergency Abandoned Mine Land program, Richardson deals with only the most serious messes.
"We don't look for work at all," Richardson said. "We stay busy enough with people calling every day and saying, 'I have a problem.'"
Other coalfield states are in the same boat. They have far more abandoned mines to clean up than they have money to spend.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Since 1978, coal operators across the country have paid about $7 billion into a fund meant to clean up the nation's abandoned mines.
Today, that fund has an unspent balance of $1.6 billion.
Instead of giving that cash to states for reclamation projects, lawmakers and administrators use it to make the federal budget appear more balanced.
More than $1 billion of that is money that Congress specifically promised to give back to states.
Not getting their share
Under the law, states are supposed to automatically receive one-half of the reclamation taxes collected from their coal operators.
This money is known as the "state share." But lawmakers have never given states anywhere near their share.
Last year, for example, states sent $283 million in coal industry taxes to Washington. Washington sent back just $78 million in state-share AML allocations, according to federal Office of Surface Mining data. The rest stayed in a bank account in D.C., where state-share money keeps piling up.
Wyoming is owed the most, about $410 million as of June 30. West Virginia is next, with more than $124 million, and Kentucky third, with $121 million.
The result? Southern West Virginians know firsthand.
Freda Williams lives at Leevale, in the Coal River Valley just east of Whitesville. Williams worries about the two underground mines behind her house. Both are filling up with water. She wonders what will happen when they can't hold anymore.
"We've had blowouts here in the hollow and mudslides from time to time," Williams said.
A couple of years ago, DEP and OSM inspected the mines. They said it wasn't an emergency. The sites went on the list. State officials don't know when they will get to them.
"I hear there is a shortage of funds," Williams said.
In May, Bo Webb called DEP about drainage from an polluted abandoned mine not far from his home on Drews Creek, south of Sundial in Raleigh County.
"There is just red water pouring out of there," Webb said.
A DEP inspector said it wasn't an emergency either.
"He said to keep an eye on it, and if it gets worse to give him a call," Webb said.
A 'trust fund'
State officials who want more of their AML money back battle conflicting language by the lawmakers who created the program.
Congress spoke of an AML "trust fund ... created on the books of the Treasury of the United States."
But, the law also stipulates that states may use this money to reclaim abandoned mines "only when appropriated" by Congress.
The AML fund is considered "on budget," as are most government trust funds. The money is held in the government's treasury pool. It can't be spent until Congress says so. But it can't be spent on anything else, either.
When lawmakers try to increase AML spending, they compete with other government budget priorities.
To spend another $1 million on mine cleanups, Congress has to cut $1 million someplace else. Otherwise, the budget deficit grows.
So, lawmakers don't distribute all of the money the AML tax raises. Since 1977, the annual AML budget has equaled that year's tax collections only three times, government budget records show.
In May 2000, coal industry lawyers in Kentucky sued the federal government to try to free up some of the reclamation money.
A federal judge, and then a federal appeals court, threw the case out.
Some lawmakers and industry groups have sought to have AML taken "off budget," so that funds would not be used to offset the deficit. They haven't had any luck.
'Coal refuse as far as you can see'