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AML measure could cut W.Va. funding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New federal legislation aimed at cutting Abandoned Mine Lands program spending in states that have already cleaned up their abandoned mines could end up costing West Virginia $10 million a year for such projects.

The measure, included in a transportation spending bill signed last week by President Obama, continues the ongoing controversy over how AML money is distributed.

Legislation has already been introduced to try to repeal the transportation bill language. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., and a champion of the AML program, is a co-sponsor.

Under the AML program, coal operators nationwide pay a per-ton tax that funded reclamation of sites that were abandoned before the federal strip-mine law was passed in 1977.

Also under the law, states that cleaned up all of their abandoned mines were to be "certified." Theoretically, they would then receive less money, and be able to use it for broader purposes.

But some states that finished all of their cleanups were never formally certified. And others that were certified -- such as Wyoming, the nation's largest coal producer -- continued to receive huge sums of AML money that they spent on projects that had little to do with coal.

Through legislation passed in 2006 to extend the program, states like Wyoming began receiving an amount equal to 50 percent of their AML taxes, but from general federal monies, instead of the AML fund. Their AML taxes were then redistributed to other, non-certified states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

For several years, the Obama administration has tried to reform the AML program by stopping general tax dollar payments to Wyoming and other certified states. Those proposals have gone nowhere.

Then, a measure was quietly slipped into the transportation bill -- apparently no lawmakers have admitted to being its author -- that would limit general tax dollar payments to certified states to $15 million a year.

But because of the complicated formula used to dole out AML money to non-certified states, the bill would also have the effect of reducing payments to those non-certified states.

The Interstate Mining Compact Commission, a coalition of coal states, has warned lawmakers that the measure would slash AML payments and set back efforts to reclaim abandoned mines.

In West Virginia, the legislation could cost the state Department of Environmental Protection about $10 million a year out of its nearly $67 million annual AML budget.

"The unintended consequence of capping Abandoned Mine Land funds for certified States in this particular way is that monies that should be spent to reclaim abandoned mine sites in West Virginia and elsewhere will accumulate, unspent, in a Federal fund," Rahall said. "We need those reclamation monies for the health and safety of mining community residents and that is why I have offered legislation to fix the flawed language and keep that money flowing to address West Virginia's needs." Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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