The federal program to clean up abandoned coal mines will continue through at least June 2005, under a government funding bill approved over the weekend.Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., included language in the bill to allow federal officials to continue collecting a coal industry tax the funds the cleanups.Byrd had already continued the program once beyond its expiration deadline of Sept. 30.Congress and the Bush administration had not been able to come to agreement on a long-term reauthorization plan for the Abandoned Mine Land program.
“The fact that the congressional committees couldn’t finish their work is not the fault of the families living near these abandoned mine sites, but it is those families which have to bear the risks if the AML program disappears,” Byrd said Monday. “Their safety is far more important than partisan disagreements in Congress.“This nine-month extension gives the families some peace of mind while giving the congressional committees additional time to finish their work,” Byrd said.Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, “This is a program which is critical to our ongoing efforts to improve the coalfield environment and economy.“Yet, we have been fighting an uphill battle to get it extended,” Rahall said. “All I can say is thank goodness for Senator Robert C. Byrd, who once again has tossed us a lifeline so that we can live to fight another day for a full and comprehensive extension of the AML program,” Rahall said.As a freshman representative in 1977, Rahall served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The AML program is part of that law.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.In August, The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles that more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects. (See http://wvgazette.com/section/Series/Abandoned+Promises.)All year, competing proposals to extend the AML tax for another dozen years were stalled.The Bush administration’s plan went 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.Rahall, who twice authored legislation for previous AML extensions, joined with Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., on 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 a previous funding bill, the AML tax was extended through Nov. 20.After that, the federal Office of Surface Mining would not have been able to collect taxes to fund the program. Thousands of acres of abandoned sites across the country would have gone unreclaimed.Instead, Byrd included the nine-month AML extension — through June 30, 2005 — in the 2005 financial year Interior Department funding bill.The bill was wrapped into a larger funding package and approved by Congress late Saturday. It now goes to the White House to become law.