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Mine cleanup program gets reprieve

The federal program to clean up abandoned coal mines will live on through at least November, because of action taken by Sen. Robert C. Byrd.Byrd, D-W.Va., got an extension of the program included in a continuing resolution that funds the federal government through Nov. 20.Byrd said that his measure "gives those committees in Congress which are supposed to write a permanent extension some extra time to get their job done."The authorizing committees have delayed and delayed and delayed," Byrd said. "The Bush White House has failed to make the extension of the AML program a priority."I don't think that coalfield communities should take a back seat," Byr said. "The people living in these communities, near these abandoned mine sites, deserve the peace of mind that comes with mine reclamation. These families shouldn't have to live in limbo simply because the White House and the Republican Congressional Leadership has dropped the ball on funding mine reclamation work.The Senate approved the resolution by unanimous consent late Wednesday. The House already had approved it.Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land program in 1977, when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.Under the AML 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’s inception, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.
The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles last month that more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects. (See far, competing proposals to extend the AML tax for a dozen years have stalled.The Bush administration’s plan is going nowhere, in large part because it does not give Western states — especially Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer — any share of the future coal taxes they pay. The Bush plan instead would use coal taxes from Wyoming, which promised 20 years ago that it had reclaimed all its abandoned mines — to clean up sites in West Virginia and other Appalachian states.Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has joined with Rep. Barbara Cubin, D-Wyo., with a plan that instead would give Wyoming more money from federal mineral leases. Also, the Rahall-Cubin plan would require states to more closely follow the original AML goals of putting high-priority health-and-safety cleanups first.Under existing law, the AML tax was scheduled to expire Thursday, the end of the 2004 financial year. If that happened, thousands of acres of abandoned mines across the coalfields would go unreclaimed.
With Byrd’s amendment, the tax will stay in place through Nov. 20.By then, AML supporters hope to work out a compromise to allow for a long-term extension of the program.“We hope that this spotlight placed on the AML program will serve as a catalyst for more intense discussions on reasonable and equitable steps forward in addressing these problems and protecting the health and safety of those at risk by putting money where the problems are and finishing the job,” said Jeff Jarrett, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.
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