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Wyo. lawmaker seeks AML deal

A Wyoming lawmaker has called a high-level meeting to try to come up with a deal that would extend the federal program to clean up abandoned coal mines.Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., scheduled the meeting for today in her Washington office. Representatives of the coal industry and organized labor are scheduled to attend.The meeting comes as the coal production tax that funds the Abandoned Mine Land program is set to expire at the end of September.Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is trying to win approval of short-term legislation to extend the tax through June 2006.But various AML interest groups — lawmakers from various coal regions, environmentalists, coal operators and the United Mine Workers — have been unable to agree on a broader bill to reform the program.“Abandoned mine lands present some of the most dangerous environmental hazards we face,” Cubin said Tuesday.“I hope we can get our heads together at this meeting and develop a plan to move this proposal forward,” she said. “We have a responsibility to the environment that we must live up to and we need to guarantee that the funding will be available to clean up abandoned mines all over the country.” Cubin is a co-sponsor, with Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., of one of the competing bills to extend and reform the AML program.Jim Zoia, a top aide to Rahall, said today’s meeting “is part of a continuing effort by Representatives Rahall and Cubin to move this issue forward and gain the enactment of comprehensive AML legislation.”In co-sponsoring their bill, Cubin and Rahall have bridged a battle between Eastern and Western coal states that has stymied efforts to extend the AML program.The issue is that most U.S. coal production comes from Western states — primarily Wyoming — while the majority of abandoned mine sites are in Eastern states with a history of coal production, such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
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 clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977, when the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed.Since the program began, coal operators have paid more than $7 billion into the fund. But more than $1.3 billion of AML money has been diverted to other projects.Wyoming, for example, spent about $90 million in AML money on roads, schools and other infrastructure projects after declaring it had finished cleaning up its abandoned mines. Appalachian states with large numbers of retired coal miners have benefited. More than $665 million in AML interest has funded health-care benefits for retired coal miners.
The Cubin-Rahall bill would seek to stop some, but not all, of these diversions.It would force states to “strictly adhere” to the original AML priority list, eliminate the “general welfare” clause that states — primarily Pennsylvania — have sought to use to allow funding of lower-priority projects, and force the federal Office of Surface Mining to conduct an audit of the AML project inventory.At the same time, the Cubin-Rahall bill would give back to states like Wyoming millions of dollars of AML taxes that the federal government has never appropriated to states. They could spend the money however they like.Also, it would allow Wyoming and other “certified” states — those that cleaned up all of their abandoned mines — to continue to receive the equivalent of their share of future AML taxes. But, that money would come not from those AML taxes, but from federal mineral leases.The Cubin-Rahall bill would also increase the amount of AML interest spent to avoid the financial collapse of the UMW’s retiree health-care plan.In a rival bill supported by the Bush administration, Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., has sought to cut off future AML appropriations to Wyoming and other certified states.
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