With time again running down, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd on Wednesday moved to temporarily rescue the federal program that cleans up abandoned coal mines.The West Virginia Democrat, along with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., convinced the Senate Appropriations Committee to extend the federal Abandoned Mine Land tax through Sept. 30.Byrd said his amendment, added to an Iraq war-spending bill, was meant to give other congressional committees time to mold more comprehensive AML legislation.“I hope, for the sake of those families and those communities struggling with the scars of abandoned mines, that the congressional committees will stop dragging their feet and give this program the attention that it deserves,” Byrd said in a statement.
Last year, Byrd pushed through legislation that extended the AML tax from Sept. 30, 2004, through June 30, 2005.At the time, Byrd said he hoped that additional nine months would give lawmakers time to work out a long-term AML extension.But so far this year, under a new Congress, no legislation to reauthorize the mine cleanup program has even been introduced.“There have been no bills considered,” Byrd told the committee. “There have been no hearings scheduled. No progress has been made.”
Negotiations are apparently continuing, but no one involved is ready to talk about specifics.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 clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977, when the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed.In West Virginia, more than $375 million in AML money has been spent over the last 20 years to regrade scarred land, stabilize dangerous slides, fix hazardous highwalls and otherwise clean up abandoned mine sites.But, measured by estimated cleanup costs, less than one-quarter of the state’s currently inventoried abandoned mine problems have been reclaimed, according to federal data.Since the program began, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund.The Charleston Gazette outlined in a series of articles last year that more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.