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New life for dead mines

Coalfield lawmakers were negotiating this weekend to try to insert language to extend the federal abandoned-mine cleanup program into a broad energy bill Congress might vote on early this week.

The proposal would extend the program for 15 years and provide up to $100 million a year in new reclamation money for historic coal states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Without congressional action, a coal industry tax to fund the Abandoned Mine Lands, or AML, program will expire Sept. 30, 2004.

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The program has $1.5 billion in unspent money sitting in the bank.

But that’s only half of what is needed to fix the nation’s estimated $3 billion worth of dangerous highwalls, gob piles, slurry impoundments and polluted water supplies. States also have identified another $3.6 billion in lesser-priority abandoned coal sites they want to reclaim.

In May, a federal Office of Surface Mining report found that 1.2 million Americans live within a half mile of a dangerous abandoned mine site.

“These are not merely ‘ugly landscapes’ that need to be made more attractive,” OSM Director Jeff Jarrett said during a July congressional hearing. “These are serious, life threatening, high-priority hazards that have been around for more than 26 years and haven’t yet been cleaned up.”

Authors of the extension proposal have managed to secure support from some major coal operators and from western-state lawmakers who previously objected to extending the program.

Industry officials are pleased with language that would reduce the coal industry’s AML tax by 20 percent. Westerners are happy because the proposal increases the money they would receive for mine cleanups.

At the same time, the proposal makes more AML money available to eastern coal states, where most of the abandoned-mine messes are located.

Western states would get their funding increase from royalties and fees on public-land mineral production in the west, rather than from the AML tax fund. That would free up more AML money for eastern coal states.

Last month, longtime Kentucky environmental lawyer Tom FitzGerald told state reclamation officials that just such a compromise would be needed to ensure the “goal of reclaiming the legacy of blighted land and water resources and reinventing some hope in coalfield communities.

“The congressional plate is full, and time is too short for conflict over the reauthorization,” FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has been working on the proposal with Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., chairwoman of the House Resources Committee.

Rahall, the committee’s ranking Democrat, was on the conference committee that wrote the 1977 federal strip mining law and has twice authored legislation to extend the AML program.

“Significant hurdles ... still exist to the extension of this program,” Rahall said Saturday. “But we have now at least reached an historic agreement between representatives of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and the Appalachian Basin of West Virginia, two of the largest coal-producing states and the two with so much at stake here.”

When it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act 26 years ago, Congress recognized the need for funding to clean up thousands of coal mines that operated and were abandoned before the law took effect.

Lawmakers authorized a coal tax of 35 cents per ton of surface production and 15 cents per ton of underground production.

Since its creation, the tax has generated more than $6.5 billion.

Funded projects have eliminated more than 500 miles of dangerous highwalls, reclaimed nearly 900 impoundments, and fixed 3,400 acres of landslides, according to government reports.

But the AML program has also been fraught with problems.

When lawmakers created it, they designated spending from the trust fund as “on budget.” The money can’t be spent on anything else, but it also can be spent only in the amounts doled out in annual appropriations bills by Congress.

At the same time, the AML law said that states were supposed to get back half of the money their coal operations pay in taxes.

But lawmakers have never appropriated AML funds in those amounts. Each year, states get just a fraction of the AML taxes collected from their mining companies.

Last year, for example, West Virginia sent $34.5 million in AML taxes to Washington. The state should have gotten $17 million of that back. Lawmakers sent only $9.7 million.

The result is that $1.5 billion of AML sits in the U.S. Treasury, helping the federal budget appear to be more balanced.

The Rahall-Cubin bill does not remove the requirement that AML money be appropriated each year. Instead, it tries to address the issue by making more money available for appropriation to the states that need it most.

For example, the bill would increase from 20 percent to 30 percent the portion of OSM’s share of the AML money that is used for grants to historic coal states with the worst and most abandoned mine site problems.

Also, because it would shift funding of AML projects in Wyoming and Montana to mineral leasing royalties, those states’ share of AML taxes would be available for cleanups in other states.

Among other provisions, the Rahall-Cubin bill would require OSM to keep a closer watch on what projects states approve for AML cleanups, according to draft language dated Sept. 29. It would also force OSM to perform a detailed audit of the national AML inventory and weed out undeserving projects.

The proposal would also significantly expand a program to use interest on the AML money to ensure full funding of health-care benefits for 50,000 retired United Mine Workers and their families.

Supporters have been quietly working on the issue for several weeks, but it was still not clear Saturday if they would manage to cement the AML amendment, called the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Act, into the broader energy bill.

“It’s very important that we get something done as soon as possible, rather than worry about any of the pitfalls in any legislative language,” said Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an organization the represents 20 mineral-producing states.

“I’ve not seen a perfect bill anywhere,” Conrad said. “But I’m very concerned about whether anything would get done next year, because it’s a presidential election year.”

Agreement from Cubin and other western Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., is a key step.

Wyoming officials have been especially concerned about the AML program.

As the state’s largest coal-producing state, Wyoming is also the biggest generator of AML taxes. But because coal mining in the state largely developed after passage of the 1977 mining law, Wyoming has fewer high-priority AML projects.

State officials from Wyoming previously opposed continuation of the AML tax, saying it was unfair for Wyoming to pay so much of the tax and not get more money to spend on its lower- priority cleanups.

“The problem this tax is designed to address — abandoned mine lands from prior generations — is a national legacy and should be remedied by the expenditure of general revenues, rather than a selective tax,” John Masterson, a lawyer for Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal, said in July congressional testimony.

Some environmental groups have yet to fully sign on to the legislation, in part because they oppose reducing the AML tax.

Meg Moore, director of the Washington-based Citizens Coal Council, said her group is also upset that the amendment would eliminate language that allows states to spend money on AML projects that improve the “general welfare.”

Moore said her group favors giving states “flexibility” in AML spending.

Advocates of eliminating the “general welfare” clause say it has been abused by states to fund lesser-priority projects over fixing health-and-safety threats.

“The law clearly and properly places a priority on reclaiming those abandoned coal mines which present a threat to public health and safety,” said Jim Zoia, a longtime Rahall aide and Democratic staff director for the House Resources Committee.

“Yet, over the years, this priority has been undermined by OSM policy,” Zoia said. “Not all states have gone astray. But a wake-up call is clearly needed to remind them that taking action to protect human life must come first.”

The coal industry’s major lobby group, the National Mining Association, also declined Friday to support or oppose the legislation.

“We don’t have a position on this amendment,” said association spokeswoman Carol Raulston.

The Bush administration, which promised earlier this year to push for AML reauthorization, was staying out of the current debate.

“We’re hearing a lot from the Hill,” said OSM spokesman Mike Gauldin. “We’re watching to see what happens.”

A handful of thorny issues have tied up the GOP-dominated energy bill negotiations for several weeks. House and Senate leaders are still hoping to bring the bill to the House floor on Tuesday.

Previously, Rahall has vigorously opposed the energy bill, because of Republican-backed provisions to open more public lands to mining and drilling. Rahall also opposed millions of dollars in various tax breaks the bill offered to energy production companies.

The AML provisions might make the bill somewhat more palatable, Rahall said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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