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With new budget, mine cleanup future unclear

By the end of the year, the fund that cleans up the nation’s abandoned coal mines is expected to have an unspent balance that approaches $2 billion.

On Monday, President Bush again asked lawmakers to cut the amount of that money that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining actually spends on its cleanup program.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton held out hope of an additional $58 million from that unspent Abandoned Mine Land fund being released every year for the next decade.

That money would be freed up only in the unlikely event that Congress agrees to the administration’s long-term plan to extend the coal production tax that funds the AML program.

So far, Bush does not even plan to re-submit an administration bill that went nowhere during last year’s congressional session.

Last year, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., managed a nine-month extension of the AML tax, giving the program life through June 30.

Now, lawmakers are under the gun to try to find a compromise between various coal states and the industry if the mine cleanup program is to survive.

“We’re pretty discouraged,” said Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, which lobbies for coal states. “There’s not a lot happening.”

In his proposed 2006 financial year budget, Bush called for an overall 1.5 percent cut in the AML program.

He asked lawmakers to approve $188 million for the program, down from the nearly $191 million that Congress gave the program this year.

Direct grants to coal state reclamation programs would stay the same as the $147.5 million lawmakers approved last year, officials said.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, called the money “a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $2 billion in unspent AML funds sitting idle in the Treasury.

“This is a disservice to coal-mining communities in West Virginia and across the country,” Rahall said in a statement.

“It certainly is not helpful to our continuing efforts to fight the human health and safety threats these abandoned coal mines pose,” Rahall said. “So, I say once again, Mr. President, ‘Set our money free.’”

Nationwide, more than $8.7 billion worth of abandoned mine reclamation is waiting for federal money, according to the latest OSM data.

In West Virginia, at least $1.2 billion — and probably far more — is needed to clean up mine sites abandoned by their operators prior to passage of the federal strip mine law in 1977.

Thousands of acres of scarred land remain un-reclaimed. Hundreds of polluted streams are not being cleaned up.

In each of his first three budgets, Bush proposed major reduction in AML spending.

Then for the current year’s budget, Bush proposed what would have been a huge increase — if lawmakers had approved it.

For next year, Bush is essentially doing the same thing.

The administration proposes to spend an additional $58 million a year for 10 years on AML cleanups.

That proposal died last year, in large part because it did not give Western states — especially Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer — any share of the future coal taxes they pay.

Instead, the Bush plan would use taxes from Wyoming, which promised 20 years ago that it had cleaned up all of its abandoned coal mines, to reclaim abandoned sites in states with bigger AML problems, such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Rahall, who twice authored legislation for previous AML extensions, joined with Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., on a plan that instead would give Wyoming more money from federal mineral leases. Also, the Rahall-Cubin bill would require states to more closely follow the original AML goals of putting high-priority health and safety cleanups first.

Congress created the AML program in 1977, when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Coal operators pay 35 cents per ton of surface-mined coal and 15 cents per ton of underground-mined coal. The money is supposed to be used to clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977.

Since the program’s inception, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.

But, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects. Lawmakers are keeping nearly $2 billion in coal tax money bottled up in Washington, to help the federal budget appear more balanced.

Under the original law, states were supposed to get back half of the AML taxes their coal companies paid for reclamation within their borders.

That has never happened. Most states are owed millions of dollars in AML money that has never been doled out by Congress. West Virginia, for example, is owed nearly $130 million.

OSM Director Jeff Jarrett said Monday that his agency’s goal is to get the AML tax reauthorized, redirect more of the program’s money to states with the greatest need, and give states like Wyoming back part of the reclamation taxes they already paid.

Jarrett said that he was not disappointed that, absent passage of the administration’s extension bill, the president did not propose increased spending on abandoned mine cleanups.

“Realistically, given the budget climate that’s going on, that’s not going to happen,” Jarrett said.

“I think everyone agrees that this is not today the most effective program it could be,” Jarrett said. “To say that what you do with a program that is not as effective as it could be is just give it more money is not rational.”


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