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Obama again seeks reforms in mine cleanup program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- President Obama is, for the fifth time, asking Congress to stop diverting money intended for cleaning up abandoned coal mines to states that have already reclaimed all of their old mine sites.The Obama proposal is again included in the Interior Department's proposed budget for the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.Under the proposal, OSM would save $32 million next budget year and about $327 million over the next decade by not distributing federal Abandoned Mine Lands funds to states that have previously "certified" that they cleaned up all coal sites that were abandoned prior to 1977.Refocusing the AML program on cleaning up high-priority mine sites would primarily benefit West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, historic mining states with the largest numbers of abandoned coal operations."This proposal will ensure that the Nation's most dangerous abandoned coal mines are addressed before the AML fee expires in 2012," the administration said in budget documents.In this year's budget proposal, the Obama administration also recommends that Congress return the per-ton tax on coal production that funds the AML program to the level they were prior to a cut in the reclamation fees included as part of a 2006 extension of the program.OSM officials said that increasing the fees to their previous levels would provide an additional $53 million in 2014 that could be used to reduce the $3.9 billion in dangerous abandoned mines nationwide.The AML changes are part of an OSM budget proposal that recommends a nearly 5 percent overall cut in OSM's budget, to about $143 million during the 2013-2014 budget year that starts Oct. 1.Among other things, the proposal would slash by more than 15 percent OSM grants to state strip-mine regulatory agencies like the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
"States are encouraged to recover more of their regulatory costs from the coal industry through user fees," the administration said in OSM's budget proposal.Obama's proposals to reform the AML program were dead on arrival at Congress during the president's first term, in large part because or opposition from Wyoming' the nation's largest coal producer. The administration proposal goes against a compromise forged in 2008 that extended the coal production tax that funds AML cleanups. That legislation instituted some program reforms, but also allowed states that have completed their coal cleanups to continue using the money for other things.In 2004, a Gazette series revealed that more than $1.3 billion of AML money had been funneled to other purposes, including reclamation of non-coal mines, road construction, and even college campus expansions. The largest diversion was to fund the troubled United Mine Workers retiree health-care plan.Under the 1977 surface mining law, coal operators nationwide pay a per-ton tax that funds the reclamation of mine sites that were abandoned before the federal strip-mine law was passed.Also under the law, states that cleaned up all of their abandoned mines were to be "certified" as having done so. Theoretically, those states 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 -- continued to receive huge sums of AML money that they spent on projects that had nothing to do with coal.Through the 2006 reauthorization legislation, states like Wyoming lost an automatic 50 percent of the future AML taxes paid by their coal industries. But, they continued to receive payments from their past AML taxes, and were given more leeway to spend the money however they wanted.
The 2006 legislation also cut the per-ton AML tax from 35 cents per ton to 31.5 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and from 15 to 13.5 cents for underground mined coal.Last year, legislation tucked into a federal transportation bill prohibited Wyoming from getting more than $15 million a year in AML money, a move toward the sort of reform the Obama administration has proposed.In their new budget proposal, administration officials again recommend replacing current production-based AML distribution formulas with an advisory council that would allocate money based on a review of cleanup projects in each state.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.
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