Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., took the first step Tuesday to stave off the end of the federal program that cleans up abandoned coal mines.Byrd won Senate Appropriations Committee approval to extend a tax that funds the cleanup program for another nine months.The extension was added, by voice vote, to the Senate version of next year’s budget for the Department of the Interior. Now, the measure goes to the full Senate.Without congressional action, the coal tax that funds mine cleanups would expire Sept. 30.
If that happens, thousands of abandoned mine sites — mostly in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky — would go unreclaimed.“This program impacts jobs in local communities, the continuation of health-care benefits for retired coal miners and their families, the cleanup of old mine hazards and environmental improvements around the country,” Byrd said.“The deadline is fast approaching and cannot be ignored,” he said. “It is incredibly shortsighted to allow this program to disappear with the vague promise that it will be re-created later.”
Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program in 1977, when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.Under the program, 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 began, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.But, as The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles last month, more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.
Lawmakers and Interior’s Office of Surface Mining have allowed AML money to fund infrastructure projects unrelated to the coal industry, health-care benefits for retired miners, the cleanup of other industries’ messes, and lower-priority abandoned coal sites that do not pose health or safety threats.Also, across the coalfields, abandoned coal mines have gone unreclaimed because Congress has squirreled away $1.6 billion of AML money to help the federal budget look more balanced.So far this year, competing proposals to extend the AML tax have stalled.Under current law, OSM could continue to levy some sort of AML tax after Sept. 30. But, the fee could be set only at the level needed to provide adequate interest to fund the United Mine Workers’ retiree health-care plan. No future taxes for abandoned cleanups would be allowed.
In late August, Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson warned lawmakers that, when the current unspent balance runs out, more than $2 billion of high-priority coal sites would still go unreclaimed.But Byrd said that the Bush administration has not made the AML program enough of a priority.In each of his first three budgets, President Bush proposed major cuts in annual AML spending. Finally this year, he proposed increased spending and a bill to extend the AML tax.“By allowing the reclamation authority to lapse, the White House and the Republican congressional leadership are gambling with the lives and safety of coalfield residents,” Byrd said Monday. “I hope that Congress will come to its senses and approve an extension for this important work.”Originally, Byrd sought a one-year extension, but cut back his proposal to nine months, with the program expiring in June 2005.Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has twice authored legislation to extend the AML program and has fought an uphill battle to win another reauthorization.
“This is an extremely important and urgent issue as it is part and parcel of our efforts to protect coalfield citizens from the health and safety threats posed by abandoned coal mines,” Rahall said. “Once again, Senator Byrd has not flagged nor failed in his longstanding efforts on behalf of our state. I salute him for his initiative.”