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AML problems abound, but D.C. keeps money

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'

In Mingo County, residents along Neds Branch have seen what happens when an abandoned mine problem gets worse.

For years, a huge coal-waste impoundment loomed on a hillside up a hollow just outside Gilbert.

In February 2003, heavy rains caused the impoundment to overflow. Runoff flooded and damaged the road out of the hollow. A dozen families were trapped.

By the time Richardson got there, there was an 80-foot notch down the front of the impoundment.

"A piece of the hillside broke off, and the middle went, and the slurry poured out," he said.

Richardson called in some contractors with heavy equipment. They got to work on what would become - eight months and $3.2 million later - the biggest emergency AML project in U.S. history.

Now, bright green grass covers the former impoundment site's carefully sculpted hills. Rock-lined ditches were placed along the gravel-and-dirt road to keep out ATV riders.

Along with impoundments, underground coal seam fires can be among the most expensive abandoned mine problems to fix.

In Centralia, Pa., federal officials gave up on putting out such a fire when the price was estimated at $663 million. Instead, the AML program spent $42 million - under direct orders from Congress - to relocate nearby residents.

Centralia and Neds Branch are from the everyday AML jobs.

In West Virginia, the average AML reclamation job runs about $150,000.

It's more like the one Richardson's crew did behind Berry Godby's house outside Chapmanville.

Up the hill from the home along Corridor G, there are two old deep mines. One night earlier this year, water that filled up one of the mines blew out of the hillside.

"It washed straight across the yard, hit the back of the garage, filled the garage, and it was up to the back window [of the house]," Richardson recalled.

In April, DEP contractors used backhoes, loaders and trucks to build a new retaining wall to control any future slides. The project will cost about $250,000.

Budget woes

While Congress has kept AML money bottled up in Washington, presidents from both parties have done little to help.

The first Bush administration sought huge cuts in 1992 and 1993.

Bill Clinton did not propose a major increase in funding until his 2000 financial year budget, the seventh of his eight spending plans.

In each of his first three budgets, George W. Bush proposed major reductions in AML spending.

This year, Bush called for a $53 million AML budget hike. That proposal is part of a larger plan to overhaul the entire program.

At the same time, states complain that the cost to reclaim mine sites has skyrocketed.

"Unaddressed sites tend to get worse over time, thus increasing reclamation costs," said Steve Hohmann, director of Kentucky's AML program. "Inflation exacerbates these costs. The longer the reclamation is postponed, the les reclamation will be accomplished."

A deadly problem

Even AML projects that seem inexpensive can be trouble if they are not reclaimed.

In the last five years, more than 160 people across the country have died in abandoned mines.

No federal agency investigates these deaths fully. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration keeps a list - cobbled together from newspaper articles and other media reports - on its Web site.

In May 2003, OSM published a study that said 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," said OSM Director Jeff Jarrett. "These are serious, life-threatening, high-priority hazards."

Most of the fatal accidents are drownings. Water collects in mine shafts and open pits companies left behind. People fall in and drown. Others use open pits as swimming holes, and drown when they can't climb out because the walls are sheer rock.

Other deaths involve ATV accidents or falls into vertical mine shafts that can be hundreds of feet deep.

More than a decade ago, in 1990, the AML program helped avoid a near-disaster on the playground of Kimball Elementary School in McDowell County.

The school's maintenance guy was mowing the law, and his mower cut off, Richardson recalled.

"He bent down to check it, and he fell over," Richardson said.

DEP investigators found that blackdamp - a toxic mix of gases that forms in underground mines - was seeping out of an abandoned portal adjacent to the playground.

The state spent about $170,000 to seal the portals.

"If the kids had been outside, and gotten into that, it would have been bad," Richardson said.

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


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