WHERE to start? A 27-year-old federal program intended to repair deadly and dangerous problems left by abandoned coal mines puts less than half of its money into those projects.
Instead, coalfield residents in West Virginia and other states still are threatened by mine subsidence, toxic drainage and mudslides. Meanwhile, funds in the nation’s Abandoned Mine Land program are spent for other things, as reporter Ken Ward Jr. found:
Wyoming used $90 million of the money to build hospitals, schools, highways and other projects, including a $20 million geology building, all legally.
Even when the money is used to reclaim mine lands, it’s not always coal mine lands. Cleaning up non-coal mines in Western states is done, although only coal operators pay into the AML fund.
Congress has spent about $665 million of interest from the AML fund to preserve health-care benefits for thousands of retired miners since 1996, a worthy cause, but hardly what the program was designed for. Also, reaping the interest also creates a reluctance to spend too much from the AML fund. Gotta keep that principal up if you’re living off the interest.
Congress is holding back $1.6 billion from states to make the federal budget appear more balanced.
Lower-priority projects, such as cleaning up popular trout streams, can get funding before higher-priority projects that would remove health and safety threats.
And until the Gazette started asking, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining didn’t even have a list of projects which had received AML money.
It is easy for people in Washington, Denver or even Charleston to assume that this debate is about some muddy, ugly slopes, or even some dirty streams. But these problems are more than eyesores.
Hillsides threaten to bury homes. Toxic gases threaten schoolchildren. People fall or swim in pits filled with water and then drown when they cannot climb the sheer rock faces. As OSM Director Jeff Jarrett said, “These are serious, life-threatening, high-priority hazards.”
There’s an inherent conflict in the system. Western states have become the biggest coal producers, so their mine operators supply the largest share of the AML fund. But for many generations, eastern states were the big producers, so they have more abandoned sites that present immediate danger.
Obviously, states with the greatest needs should receive larger portions, and that means West Virginia, with $1.19 billion worth of waiting projects, second-highest in the nation. But even this criterion needs to be checked. As Ward’s four-part series showed, Pennsylvania nearly doubled the size of the national waiting list in 1999 when the state added $3.6 billion of watershed projects, bringing the total U.S. list to $8.6 billion.
All of these conditions point to the need to fix the AML program, to refocus it on the problems at hand. So, where to start?
West Virginia’s Rep. Nick Joe Rahall and Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., worked out a plan to undo Pennsylvania’s action and stop other states from loading the list with lower-priority projects before Appalachia’s immediate dangers are fixed. Their plan also would divide money among states using pre-1977 coal production numbers, meaning eastern states with more abandoned mines would get a greater share. Their plan would preserve future payments to western states. That makes sense to us.
Some environmentalists are naturally concerned about any effort to prioritize some projects over necessary stream cleanups. Those projects can still qualify for money, but not at the expense of buried homes and poisoned air and water.
The clock is ticking. Congress’ authorization to collect the AML tax runs out in September. So when Congress goes back into session next month, we urge serious attention to this worthy program.
The only part of the tax that won’t expire is the share that bolsters miners’ health insurance. Preferably, such insurance would be safeguarded another way.
The nation might someday join the rest of the advanced world and meet the health-care needs of all citizens, but until then, we would not want to see any group damaged.
Finally, while other types of mines leave behind ravages, it is unreasonable to ask coal producers to pay to fix them. Operators of gold, copper and other mines should pay a fair share for ills caused by their industries.