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Bill restores W.Va. mine cleanup money

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One sentence tucked into the latest federal government funding bill would reverse legislation passed two months ago that threatened to cost West Virginia and other Appalachian states millions of dollars a year in money to clean up abandoned coal mines.The bill also appears to maintain a change -- including in a highway funding bill passed in July -- that ends the Abandoned Mine Lands program's practice of doling out tens of millions of dollars to Wyoming, a state that certified years ago it had cleaned up all of its old coal mines.The AML language is included in a continuing resolution worked out by negotiators from the Senate, the House and the Obama administration to provide government funding through March 2013. The resolution is expected to pass with bipartisan support today.It's not clear who inserted the AML provision, but the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, which would benefit along with West Virginia and Pennsylvania.Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., had introduced separate legislation aimed at saving West Virginia AML money, and on Wednesday praised the budget bill language."I am relieved that the years of hard work I put in to dramatically bolster funding to West Virginia to combat the health and safety threat posed by abandoned mines will not be diminished by the unintended consequences of the highway bill provision," Rahall said."If that provision is not corrected, funds needed in the coalfields would instead simply remain unspent in a government trust fund," Rahall said. "We need that money, not only to restore abandoned mines, but to put people to work."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, in July, a measure was quietly slipped into the transportation bill -- apparently no lawmaker has 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 like West Virginia, the bill would also have had 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.But the biggest hit from the transportation bill would have been to Wyoming, the only certified state with expected annual AML payments greater than $15 million. The state stands to lose about $700 million over the next few years.The new budget bill language would allow non-certified states like West Virginia to continue receiving annual payments that had previously gone to certified states like Wyoming. But it allows to stand the transportation bill language that caps payments to certified states at $15 million a year.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.
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